Illinois Marathon Recap: Mother Nature Won

Well, guys, it truly does seem the 26.2 distance is a big old jinx for this running mama. About three hours into the race — nearly 18 cold, windy and wet miles for me — runners of the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon yesterday were told to exit the course and take shelter because lightning had been sighted. So why, you may wonder, am I smiling in the picture below, which my hubby took right after I learned the race had been canceled? Because I kicked some serious butt for those 18 miles. I maintained a consistent pace, I felt great, and I absolutely, positively know I would have finished strong and met my time goal. It was a huge disappointment to not have the opportunity to cross the finish line, but the race officials made the choice they had to make to keep us all safe. 


The bright spot in all this, for me anyway, is the next picture, taken by one of my awesome running buddies (who drove two hours and stood in the rain to cheer me on). Look how happy I was during the race. And, really, isn’t that the point? I may not have earned a medal or scored the PR I have been chasing so desperately for the past year, but my victory is knowing I did my best.


Thank you so much for all your support during my training, for both Illinois and Portland. It has meant so much to me. I’m still super bummed about how yesterday turned out, but I know there will be other races. In fact, I’m figuring out my next one right now. Stay tuned.

18 Years and 15 Kilometers

Yesterday was our 18th wedding anniversary, so my husband and I did what any couple who loves to run does: We ran the Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K. It probably sounds crazy to you non-runners, but, for us, it was the perfect way to kick off our anniversary and celebrate with an activity we both truly enjoy. After my husband’s injury last spring, I am happy for any chance to run with him, but it was beyond awesome to have him with me in the start corral again (along with our 13-year-old daughter and her running pal).

I have to admit, though, that I had an ulterior motive in signing up for this race. After months of training for a marathon that didn’t go at all as planned, I wanted to remember what it feels like to just run for the fun of it. I wanted to hit the streets of a city I love with no time goal in mind, to follow my body’s natural pace and truly enjoy the experience. And I did. My husband and I ran together until the 5K/15K split, shared an awkward “Happy Anniversary” kiss (it’s not easy to smooch while running, people) and then parted ways. My Nike + app went berserk, so I had no idea how fast I was running. I just ran, and it was wonderful. I felt strong throughout the race, clocked negative splits and sprinted across the finish line with a smile on my face. It was the most fun running I have had in I don’t know how long.

Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K finishers

Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K finishers

Sometimes I think I get so caught up in obsessing about time goals and rigidly following training schedules that I forget the beauty of running and how much joy it brings me. What’s funny is that when I stopped being so hard on myself and forgot about goals, I set a personal record. I ran 0.14 seconds faster than last year. A tiny victory, for sure. But in the face of the disappointment I felt about my performance in the Portland Marathon last month, I’ll take it.

Next month I start training for my third 26.2: the Illinois Marathon in April. I definitely have something to prove — to myself – after Portland, so I know I will be serious about sticking to my training schedule. But I also hope to keep yesterday’s 15K in mind and focus on the journey to the finish line rather than the amount of time it takes me to cross it once I get there. I’m guessing that having my husband and favorite buddy along on some of my training runs – the guy who got me into running in the first place – will help me remember to not only keep pushing myself but also keep enjoying myself.

We celebrated our 18 years of marriage in a more traditional manner with a steak dinner yesterday evening. We may or may not have discussed running. We definitely had fun.

Cheers to 18 years!

Cheers to 18 years!

Away We Go

Well, folks, the big day is almost here. My husband and I fly to Portland, Oregon, today, and on Sunday I will run the Portland Marathon. If – make that when – I get to mile 17, I will cross St. John’s Bridge, a 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that spans the Willamette River. Here it is.

St. John's Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

St. John’s Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

This, meanwhile, is Arrowhead Bridge, the tiny suspension bridge I run across regularly in the small town where I live.

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My daughter on our town’s teeny, tiny Arrowhead Bridge

As you might imagine, this Midwestern girl, who is used to pancake-flat terrain, is more than slightly intimidated by the idea of running St. John’s Bridge – especially at mile 17 of a marathon. I have thought about it constantly during the past 20 weeks of training, worrying that I won’t be able to handle the elevation, wondering if I will be forced to walk it as many marathon participants apparently do. My fear is if I walk at that point, I won’t be able to raise the momentum to start running again.

The other thing I have been obsessing about is the weather. When I signed up for the race last winter, the notoriously cool, crisp Portland temps in October were a huge draw. I knew there was a good chance it would be overcast and even rainy, and that didn’t bother me. I love running in the rain. What I do not love is running in hot, humid weather. When I saw the forecast for Sunday of full sun and a high of 81 degrees, let’s just say I was less than pleased. All I could think about was how hard it would be to maintain my goal race pace in those conditions. I have three goals for my finish time. I won’t list them here because I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just call them “good,” “great” and “awesome.” After looking at that forecast, even “good” seems out of reach.

Here’s the thing, though, and it’s awfully hard to accept: No matter how much I would like to do so, I cannot predict what will happen during my race. There are so many factors over which I have no control: that damn bridge, the weather, potential injury, etc. All I can do is get myself to the start line as healthy and well-rested as possible and believe in my training. Instead of focusing on a goal time, I am going to concentrate on enjoying the experience (I hear the view from that big ol’ bridge is spectacular). When — not if — I cross the finish line, I will know I did my best. That’s all that matters.

With or Without You

I started going without him a month or so ago. The first few times, the guilt outweighed the pleasure. I would think of him and wonder if he was upset that I had left him behind. I tried not to talk about it afterward, even though he knew full well where I had been. He never appeared sad, disappointed or jealous. In fact, he encouraged me to go.

Before you start speculating about the state of my marriage, let me clarify that I am not hitting the singles bar with my girlfriends; I am training for a marathon without my husband. It might sound crazy, but I feel as if I am cheating on him every time I lace up my Sauconys. I know how much he misses running, and heading to the trail without him seems like a selfish, insensitive betrayal. I remember how bittersweet it was for me two years ago when both of us signed up for our second Chicago Marathon, but only one of us crossed the finish line. As happy as I was to be there to support him, I envied him and all the other runners as I watched from the sidelines. I also know firsthand what a frustrating letdown it is to get injured while training for a marathon, which is what happened to my husband this time around.

Although I feel guilty running without him, this next race means a lot to me. I hurt my foot 11 weeks into training for my first marathon back in 2011. I ran it anyway, but my time was nowhere near what I had anticipated because I missed so many of the long training runs. Since then, I have quit smoking and gotten smarter about incorporating strength training and yoga into my workout schedule to prevent injury. I am healthier, stronger and faster. And I am ready to prove it at the Portland Marathon, or at least I will be when race day gets here in October.

As much as I want to run this race, I offered to skip it when my husband learned that he won’t be able to join me. It will be a big expense for us to travel from Chicago to Portland, and we are trying to be (at least somewhat) more budget conscious with college just three years away for our oldest child. Plus, it is not my nature to spend a large amount of money on something that will benefit only me. A family trip to Europe? A must. A weekend in Portland for me to run a race? An extravagance.

I am happy to say that my husband did not see it that way. When I mentioned us canceling the trip, he insisted we go. “You are running for both of us,” he said. And that is my plan. I remember how happy I was when he finished his second Chicago Marathon and set a new personal record. It may not have been my year, but I was thrilled that it was his.

I am sure I will feel a little sad when I enter the start corral without my running buddy on race morning, but I also know how much he wants me to finish and do well. Yesterday, when we were planning dinners for the week, he offered to make a meal with pasta on Thursday, the night I usually rest and carb load in anticipation of a long run Friday morning. We may not be able to run together for a while, but I appreciate how lucky I am to have his love and support as I head out the door on my own. It makes what I initially perceived as cheating feel a whole lot more like winning.

My running buddy and me in Sedona this spring

My running buddy and me during a trail run in Sedona this spring

Just Run

My sixth half marathon: done

13.1: done

I am still beaming about Sunday’s Chicago Spring Half Marathon, which I ran in 2:08:15, setting a new personal record by almost six minutes. I maintained a consistent pace, and I have never felt stronger or more confident during a race.

This was a special one for me. Last year, I ran it to honor my deceased father on his birthday, and it was my first race after quitting smoking. It was also my fifth half marathon, and I finally beat my time from my first in 2011. This year, I was 15 months’ smoke-free when I crossed the finish line. My lungs were a year stronger and healthier, and I was diligent about staying on track with my training. The pressure, all of it self-imposed, was high to do even better this time. And I did — despite the niggling voice in my head that told me I couldn’t.

Even though I knew I was well-prepared, the voice managed to flame my self-doubt, especially during the final weeks of training. Your pace has been too slow on your long runs, it said. You’ll never be able to beat your PR from last year, it said. It’s not possible to get faster as you get older, it said. Get ready to be disappointed, it said.

By the week before the race, the voice was all I could hear. But then something happened that helped me quiet it. On Mother’s Day, my husband and daughter hung a bulletin board in my home office displaying bibs and photographs from the races I have run and put up two rows of hooks for my medals. Atop the bulletin board, they placed black capital letters that spell out “JUST RUN.” If you are a runner, you know that is often easier said than done. But the words, which were my 13-year-old daughter’s idea, are as brilliant as they are simple. They told me to ignore the voice in my head and focus on my feet hitting the pavement. During the week that followed, that is exactly what I did.

I only had three short, easy runs remaining before the race. Looking over my 12-week training log, I was proud to see that I had only skipped one three-mile run, despite countless available excuses, including two weeks of traveling. I knew I was ready in terms of mileage logged, but, as the voice relentlessly reminded me, my pace was not where I wanted it to be. Even though I was supposed to be tapering and resting, I needed to push myself after those disappointingly slow long runs. I saw the racing bibs and medals on my office wall, I realized how far I had come during the four years since my first 8K, and I heeded the advice above the bulletin board. My pace was strong for all three runs, and it was exactly the confidence boost I needed.

My Mother's Day gift could not have been more perfect in its message and its timing.

My Mother’s Day gift could not have been more perfect in its message or its timing.

When race morning came, the voice inside my head remained surprisingly quiet. Maybe it was the inspirational wall my family made for me. Maybe it was the distraction of my husband and a close friend running the race too. Maybe it was the awesome 2:10 pace group I ran the majority of the race with. Maybe it was all three. But for the first time probably ever during a race, I believed in myself the whole way. When I reached mile 10, I wasn’t just sure I could finish. I knew I would PR. I had no doubts. It was the best I have ever felt during a race because I stopped thinking. I just ran.

When our two rockstar pacers slowed down around mile 11 to ensure the 2:10 finishing time, several of the women who had been running with the group pushed ahead. At first I was unsure about leaving the group behind, but I felt strong and wanted to maintain the 9:45 pace. I knew I could do it, and I did. In fact, I sprinted across the finish line, simultaneously laughing and crying. One of the volunteers stopped me. I think she thought I was hyperventilating. “I’m OK,” I assured her. “I’m just happy.” Happy doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt.

For me, the best part of a race — besides crossing the finish line, of course — is finding my husband afterward. He is always proud of me. He always believes in me, even when I don’t believe in myself. When I told him I PRed, he said he knew I could do it. The difference was this time I knew it too.

Yep, still beaming.

My awesome friend Stacie, me and my husband: PRs for each of us. What an amazing race!

My awesome friend Stacie, me and my husband: PRs for all three of us. What a perfect day for a race!

Meet You at the Finish Line

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 runners who crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon this year. I registered for it. I even started training. But I couldn’t do it. Not this time around.

The year since my husband and I ran the 2011 marathon has been challenging for our family. We lost my aunt, the woman who raised me and was a grandmother to my children, and then I wound up out of a job. After two pivotal life changes within seven months, running another marathon moved to the bottom of my priority list.

My husband, meanwhile, stuck with it and ran the Chicago Marathon a second time. Even if I didn’t have the desire or motivation to run myself, I wouldn’t have missed being there to support him. I even dragged both our puffy-eyed, half-conscious children out of bed at 5:30 a.m. so the four of us could make the 45-minute journey from the South Suburbs to the city together.

I was excited for him as we piled into the car and he did his final gear check. But once we hit I-80, a lump of regret swelled in my throat. Why hadn’t I kept up with the training? Why had I given up so soon? Why had I let myself fail without even trying?

I had lots of excuses for dropping out of the race, some more valid than others. Before I lost my job, we planned two summer vacations, which meant I would miss a total of three weeks’ training and some of the longer, and most crucial, runs. But lots of marathon runners skimp a bit on training and still finish. A bigger problem was my foot, which started nagging me as the training schedule ramped up. After rupturing my plantar fascia 11 weeks into training the previous year, I worried the same or worse would happen again. What if I hurt my foot so badly that I couldn’t run anymore?

If I had truly wanted to run a second marathon, I would have ignored my aching foot with the help of a cortisone shot as I had done the previous year. My primary reason for quitting this time was that I no longer had the energy or the passion. When I lost my job six weeks into training, I knew it was over for me.

The morning of the race, dropping off my husband and watching him and thousands of other runners head toward the start line, was bittersweet. I wanted to be there to see him finish, set a new PR and feel the rush of personal victory. But I also itched to be out there with him, to experience the singular pride and joy of crossing that finish line one more time.

Before the 2011 race, my husband and I signed up for text alerts so we could track each other’s progress. I run much slower than he does normally, but because of my injury we weren’t sure if I would even finish. My longest training run had been the 16-miler when I hurt my foot.

We parted ways shortly after the race started, and I took it slowly and mile by mile. I didn’t have a time goal; I just wanted to finish. Right before mile 20, when I was exhausted and beyond doubting myself, I got a text that my husband had crossed the finish line. It was one of the best moments of the race for me; knowing he had made it carried me through my last six miles. When I crossed the finish line an hour after him, he was right there waiting for me.

This year I was determined to do the same for him.

I signed up for his text alerts so my kids and I could follow his path — or at least trace part of it. We met him with shouts of encouragement and a homemade sign near mile three and again just before the halfway mark. I wanted him to feel our support, but I also enjoyed reliving the thrills of the race.

About 20 minutes before his estimated finish time, we pushed our way through the crowd to the bleachers near the finish line. We needed just the right vantage point, and this was it: The kids could see over the adults in front of them, and my husband would be able to find us in the crowd.

When we spotted him after that final curve, my heart raced as we screamed his name. The look on his face when he saw us was pure joy, and it was as if I were experiencing those last 400 meters — the best part of the race, if you ask me — right by his side.

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 finishers at the Chicago Marathon this year. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever cross that or any other finish line again. Sometimes watching the person you love win and sharing in his happiness is enough. This year it was a victory for us both.

That guy in the blue shirt with his arms in the air is my marathon man husband, just before he crossed the finish line and set a new PR of 4:24:32.

Chasing the Dragon: A Runner’s Story

My husband and I after our first marathon, Chicago 2011

A wise and talented writer once told me, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I think Dorothy Parker coined the actual phrase, but in any case there are definitely times when I would apply it to running. Some days I procrastinate for hours because I just can’t bear the thought of putting foot to pavement. And when I finally do drag myself out the door, every step is tortuous, every breath labored. Even the halfway point seems unreachable, and I basically cannot wait for it to be over. Sometimes, like today, running downright sucks.

But other times it is a life-affirming, incomparable experience. All your negative thoughts and energy drift away, and you become perfectly in tune with your physical self. I’ve actually cried during runs…and not from pain. There is singular joy in letting go; it’s the high that keeps runners coming back for more. Those perfect moments are the dragon we can’t stop chasing.

Last year, at age 43, I ran my first marathon. I had only been running for about three years, but I had a few races under my belt, including two half marathons. I am by no means a fast runner (my finish time was 5:32.34), but that wasn’t the point for me. After suffering a foot injury 11 weeks into training, I just wanted to cross that finish line.

I took it mile by mile because I honestly didn’t know if I could do it. My longest training run before I got hurt had been 16 miles, and 26.2 seemed unfathomable. At mile 13, I was thrilled to have reached the halfway point. At mile 20, I started to think I might make it. But it wasn’t till those last 400 yards — when I could actually see the finish line — that I knew I would finish. The elation of crossing that finish line ranks up there with giving birth. Seriously. (Don’t tell my kids I said that.)

As runners, the thrill of finishing the race is our reward for all the tedious hours we spend training. Sometimes we hate running, but we love having done it. So even though today’s huff-and-puff fest of a three-mile run felt like a complete waste of time, I know for a fact that I’ll be back on the trail tomorrow or the next day…or maybe both. I can’t help myself.