The Long Road to Steamtown
“It only seems impossible until it’s done”
Lining up at the starting line in Forest City, PA, on Sunday in Scranton, I felt good. I felt ready to run. Most marathon cycles are 4-5 months, but mine was 9 months. Mentally, it started even earlier on the day after the 2015 Chicago marathon last October. That marathon was anything but my day. I was sick with a cold and sinus pressure and the weather was too hot for comfort. The race director declared “yellow” conditions a few days before the race and while we waited in the corrals he added that it was “not a day for PRs or BQs”. Why thank you sir for your complete confidence in the 35,000+ runners. I ran almost 20 miles in Chicago with one of my all time fave running buddies Todd, but to no avail, my body was dead that day. It was pretty much dead from the moment I got sick and landed in Chicago. I made peace with that race around that mile 20 spot when I told Todd to run ahead, but my newly found acceptance stage was cut short when a spectator ran into me at mile 24 making me twist my foot and hobble to the finish. Watch where you run people! I’ve since learned to push and shove as needed. Violence is the answer! Just kidding, only when spectators get in your way.
Fast forward – I took time off in November and December to shake it off, recover from a stress reaction in my foot, and regroup. I decided to join a new running team on my birthday, Dec 30th. I had been running with Team in Training for 7 years and loved every minute of it, especially the coaching aspect but I needed to switch up my own training. And so, I started working with Josh and Gotham City Runners and mixed up my running with speed work, track work, cross training, and everything in between.
This year, I PR’ed in a half marathon (twice), a 10k, a 4 miler, and a 5k. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t have lows, including an awful half in Philly only 3 weeks before the marathon, a 20 miler where I had a total body breakdown, and some less than stellar track sessions. That’s what training is though – a mix of highs and lows, with hopefully more highs, but it’s the lows that make the highs feel so much better.
In 2015, I put too much pressure on my marathon time, so this year it was more around being calmfidant (my friend Kaylee’s term for calm + confident), training to the best of my ability, and knowing I was ready when I got to that start line. Steamtown was about to be one of my most important marathons of my running life because it was the first one where I felt I actually had a chance at qualifying for Boston for the first time if I played my cards right. I needed to run under 3:40, my Boston qualifying time to run it in 2018.
Full Steam Ahead
“The more relaxed you are, the faster you run”
Cut to the race morning. Our friends dropped us off at the start line after a singalong with such eclectic choices as Justin’s “I got a feeling” and “Let the river run” from Working Girl in honor of our friends running the Staten Island Half that morning. We were greeted with water bottles and race ribbons before we entered the high school to wait inside to avoid the cold. We even had access to real bathrooms (buh bye portos!). With about 15 minutes to go, we dropped our bags and went outside to warm up. What a different experience from the major marathons! I was so much more relaxed than I usually am before a marathon. Me, relaxed before a marathon?! A panelist the day before at the Expo had shared that the more relaxed you are on the hills, the faster you run. Ok then smart panelist, relax I shall! At least I’ll try.
We lined up in the self-seeded corrals and closed our ears for the cannon. Oh yes, the race starts off with an actual cannon blast (kaboom!). This race has all the charms of a small town and I loved every minute of it (well almost every minute). The race director Jim and his emails are reason enough to head to Scranton. My friends joked that my mantra should be “Make Jim Proud!”. After all, he recognized me at the panel the day before when I introduced myself. Oh Jim, you should have your own fan club…and I can be the president. To add, Jim is a married man in his 40s or early 50s, average height, glasses, prone to wear running jackets, boot cut jeans and sneakers at all times. And yet, he is the wittiest writer I’ve come across. My PB (pace buddy) Becca and I got a selfie with him on Saturday, naturally. He loved it.
Miles 1-8 Forest City to Carbondale
“Remember it’s supposed to be FUN”
The cannon went off and so did I. Crowded first mile! I introduced myself to Keith, the 3:35 pacer who was nearby. I already loved him since he was a suave older gent (59 years young, I later learned) with a British accent, rocking a pink tutu. I mean c’mon – pacer love at first sight! We had a whole chat about my race plan while we waited for the runner congestion to open up. Keith was my spirit pacer! He was planning to run even splits, but run the second half a tad faster to make up for the slower hills at the end. He actually said that an even pace would be hard on this course but it’s how the pacers were instructed to run. That was the total opposite of my plan given my coach wanted me to use gravity to my advantage. I told Keith I’d see him later on in the race, hopefully.
Here’s a pic from a different race. Note, he has multiple pink tutus. Need I say more?
Many people leading up to the race, including Jim himself, said hold back the pace on the mega downhills in the first 8 miles because you’ll pay for it later on in the course (hardest hills are the last 3 miles) but I tried to keep a consistent effort – meaning run fast down the downhills, not fly down them but run naturally with gravity, and then slow down up the hills, figuring I’d balance out around mid 8s. The first 8 miles had the steepest downhills and biggest elevation drop, plus some uphills – all totally doable at this stage of the race. The plan was to most likely go fastest on this part, fall into a rhythm for a good chunk of the race miles 8-20, and survive the last 10k which was known as the hardest miles – hills hills hills. The Steamtown website has it’s own section called “The Steamtown Hills.”
I tried not to freak when my watch was really fast on some of the giant downhills, but it didn’t feel like effort and that was the goal. Equal effort on the ups and downs, so while I went fast downhill (but made sure to stick to good form, feet under my body, hips tucked under – the key to not dying on this course! though it’s almost inevitable) I took my time on the uphills. Same effort, but pushing more on the toes to get up. I had no exact pace goals for this section because the course was too tricky to plan that way. My coach Josh convinced me to skip the pace bracelet (the horror, the horror!) but it made sense because there was no way to run exact splits especially during these 8. I have to say, these were some FUN miles. It was so pretty to run down the streets of Forest City – the leaves were turning, the weather was great, and my energy was on fire. It felt like easy running at this stage.
For the rest of the recap, I’ll break down the race by mile and mantra. I memorized these mantras ahead of time, 27 (26 plus one for the last .2!). I do this for every major race, inspired by my friend and PT Krista who introduced me to mantras 2 years ago. They help me stay in a positive mental space, stay present, and run the mile I’m in versus getting ahead of myself and thinking about the finish. It’s also fun to say them/scream them/sing them out loud at the mile posts. Instant entertainment for you, and sometimes for those around you.
- Mile 1: All you can control is yourself – 8:23. Crowded! Flat, then steep downhill, sharp right turn, and small uphill. Good thing my new bestie Keith gave me the play by play of what’s to come as we crossed the start line.
- Mile 2: Patience for a purpose – 7:44. Ha, that mantra was to keep my pace sorta in check. That didn’t work. Weeeee! See ya Keith! Flew ahead of him at a downhill.
- Mile 3: Breath it in, run it out – 7:53. This is where I realized that Josh was right – the mile splits are going to differ and I just needed to go with it. I figured the pace would even out in time.
- Mile 4: Today’s Your Day – 7:45 on my watch / extra :28 to get to mile marker. My over arching mantra for the day, which came to me at mile 3, became “Today’s Your Day”. Presumptuous? Maybe, Helpful? Absolutely. I learned from a Deena Kastor podcast that your brain doesn’t process negative words. Telling yourself “don’t fail” or “don’t slow down” is interpreted as “fail” “slow down”. Keep your self talk positive and pump yourself up. It’s been shown to work.
- Side note about mile posts— I used to have a condition that I’ve termed “Mile Post Runner Rage” or MPRR where you get super annoyed when your watch hits the mile marker before the race hits it. You think “but I don’t want to run any more than 26.2!?!”. Well, sucks for you, because the finish line won’t move closer to you when you reach 26.2 on your garmin. Those race markers are placed in the shortest path along the race course and you’re likely to veer off it so it adds up over time. I’ve slowly made peace with my MPRR and now I lap my watch manually when I get to the marker. Does it mean I was really running 8:13 pace? Not really but that’s the average of the mile as measured by the race officials. So tip for newbies reading this, lap your watch and move on! It’ll help you run a “fresh” mile each time versus always being behind on your watch. You also don’t want to sprint to “make up” the time. That never works, trust me.
- Mile 5: Gratitude – I’m freaking lucky to be here! 7:42. Holy shit I’m running fast but it’ll all work out, I hope. Feeling happy, feeling lucky, having a blast.
- Mile 6: “What if I fail?” “But darling, what if you fly”. 7:51. I didn’t have a pace bracelet but I just happened to know hat the total time should read on my watch if I was running even splits at goal marathon place of ~8:15 (59 minutes) and I got to mile 6 three minutes faster that that. Oh boy, feeling good for sure, not slowing down, but oh boy.
- Mile 7: Dare Greatly – 7:58 on watch + :14. After I flew down a big hill, I climbed a big-ish hill. Krista had given me a trick the prior Thursday to count to 10 on the hills, just like the Thomas from the Little Engine That Could. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!
- Mile 8: Do It For Jim! 7:50 – My friends and I replaced the former mile 8 mantra “run more!” with this one. Race director Jim gets his own mile, obviously! So great to see Carolyn and Natalie around 7.5. I almost missed them, I was apparently hidden by a crowd. I loved the zen nature of this small race (2,400 runners) but it was so fun to see some friendly faces! We ran thru Carbondale where we ate the day before. It was the first small town to run thru after the early quiet miles.
Miles 9-13 Carbondale to somewhere in PA
Once we crossed the first spectator viewpoint, we had a bit of a climb as we made a winding turn. I knew we’d be heading into the forest city park / rail to trail section at 12, so I chunked off 9-13 in my mind as the next segment to hit. I always catch myself thinking ahead to the finish line and my estimated time, but I tell myself to “run the mile I’m in” and focus segment to segment. Otherwise you can just go nuts thinking about the full distance or the time at which you’ll finally get to that finish line. With this 9-13 chunk, I wanted to get into a nice rhythm and hold a steadier pace. The plan was to run around 8:15 splits here but it would be ok if I got closer to 8:00 pace on some of them. Overall, I ended up running more around the lower part of the range around 8s, and it continued to feel totally easy breezy. I was on top of the world, and feeling the positive vibes of small town PA, the pockets of spectators in the residential areas, and the amazing fall foliage. The runners high was strong here!
- Mile 9: Sky above, earth below, fire within – 7:56. I remember the mile 9 marker being right on the turn and small climb. I said “fire fire fire” out loud to power up it and a volunteer thought I was crazy. Not the first time. No fire, sir, just the fire in my legs! Woohoo! Again, I blame the runners high.
- Mile 10: Forward motion – 7:52 on my watch / +:08. Forward motion, one step at a time. Feeling awesome, still having a blast, trying to hold back but just rolling with it to maintain the effort. This mile was pretty boring, flat-ish and not much to see but some small buildings or stores so I distracted myself with excitement over hitting double digits. 16 to go.
- Mile 11: Breath in confidence, breath out doubt – 7:59. More boring streets/tiny town. Ready for some rail trails.
- Mile 12: Run for those who can’t – 7:58 on watch / +:09. This mile I remember – I went through my list of names of who I run in memory and in honor of. I thought of the TEAM and our mission to fight blood cancers. Hello, instant dose of motivation! I was happy with the splits of these last few miles, right on target, making sure not to dip far under 8:00 pace.
- Mile 13: She believed she could so she did – 7:59. Got onto the rail trail at 12.5. The next few miles were my favorite of the whole course. I saw other runners nearby but had a big wide space all to myself for large parts of it. Just me, myself and I on a lovely trail, canopied by yellow and orange trees. So zen! Oh and Josh had said I should pass 13.1 somewhere between 1:47-1:49 but not freak if I’m faster, as it would mean I was having a good day. Well, I’m glad I had that chat in mind.. since I was under 1:45. Weeeee?!? Sub 8 pace for the first half of the race!! Faster than planned, but again, more time made here, more time to allow for hills later. I practiced hills a lot this season, but extra time just in case is a good thing. I wouldn’t recommend this approach (positive split) in other races but on a tricky course like steamtown, do what you got to do.
Mile 14-20 Somewhere in PA to another cute area of PA
“My body can do amazing things”
Continued same plan – keep that rhythm, average around 8:15 miles, which became more like 8:00 but who’s counting. No pace bracelet = free reign!
- Mile 14: I am unstoppable – 8:01. Remember that zen forest feel? Temporarily halted when a leaf blower blew leaves in my face. I mean, I like nature, but not that much. He apologized, I laughed, I kept running. It probably added a few seconds, but who cares! #Nature. Small hill around 13.5 but this mile was mostly flat.
- Mile 15: Stronger with every mile – 7:59 on watch / + :07. I think we left the park here for a bit. Incline/hill towards the end of this mile.
- Mile 16: Want it more – 8:00. I was looking forward to see friends around the 17 marker so this mile was basically a countdown where I was staring down the crowds in case they moved up.
- Mile 17: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose – 8:00. Yes, I’m totally bing watching Friday Night Lights now. Channeled Coach Taylor as I ran towards the next town where I saw Carolyn and Natalie again. So good to see them. They got a wave, a fist bump, and a “For Jim!” shoutout, naturally. They are the best cheer squad ever!!
- Mile 18: I am strong – 7:50 on watch / + :24. Climbed up a little winding street onto a small bridge and back towards the trails. This was the spot for the first and only timing mat only – I knew if I ran the course even I’d be around 2:29 here. Josh would be mad if he knew I had these times in my head, but they just stayed there all by themselves, I swear! Sooo I came in around 2:24 instead, holy shit. My inner monologue: “This is gonna be the best day ever! Wait, stop presuming it’ll be amazing, run the mile you’re in. Hills are coming. But holy shit it’s gonna be awesome!! “My mind is a lot of fun to listen to…
- Mile 19: Shut up legs – 8:11. Ok not the most positive mantra but I always use it on marathons because it makes me laugh. Let’s face it, mile 19 isn’t a glamorous mile. It doesn’t have the appeal of mile 20, it’s just…there. Sorry 19, you’re the middle child of marathon miles. It didn’t help that mile 19 was over half a mile of actual trail with wood chips. I tend to be clumsy so I was staring at the ground watching my footing. It slowed me down a little bit but I tried to move as quickly as I could to escape the clowns. Jim warned in an email that clowns were waiting in the forest behind the trees. That’ll put a bounce in your step!
- Mile 20: Own every mile – 8:12. YAY I made it to 20. Only a 10k to go, I totally got this.
Mile 20-26.2 Scranton to Scranton? I’m not that good with PA geography
“I can, and I will”
Plan for the last 10k was to keep it around 8:15, knowing I could slow down if I needed to on the hills. Given I was flying the first half, I had more wiggle room. So glad to have the wiggle room –
- Mile 21: It’s only impossible until it’s done – 8:13. That feeling that I can do this all day? Well, it started to wane. I got temporarily worried that I was hitting the wall that early. Push through push through. Positive vibes, today is my day!
- Mile 22: Drop the hammer – 8:20 on watch / +:13. It was time to really focus on finishing strong and survive the hills to come. Everyone ahead of time said the worst hills are miles 23-26 but they absolutely start earlier. 21 had some gradual inclines, nothing major if it wasn’t at that stage of the race, but 22 had more rollers. While you read about the big 3 hills, the fact that there are hills in between those big 3 hills makes this section rough and nasty, especially if you didn’t listen to recommendations to hold back in the first half (*raises hand up). To add to the fun of starting to feel tired, I got a cramp on the lower left of my abs. Ouch! Grabbed some water, tried to stretch on the go by lifting my arms around my head and stretching side to side. No avail. Slower mile trying to breath it out.
- Mile 23: I think it’s time, it’s time to climb! 9:08. This mantra was inspired by my insta friend Gretchen who I met on social media using the Steamtown hashtag and we’ve been following each other’s training for months. Another fun thing about small-town races! She used that quote on one of her bike rides and I loved it. I knew more hills were coming, and this mile had a medium size one – I got over it but the cramp was killing me. I took a few steps somewhere to try and breath it out. Nope. Why why why, I was so close but still had a few miles to go. It’s scary to think I could lose it now, after such a good stretch but I told myself “this too shall pass” and kept running.
- Mile 24: All Noa 11:01. Yup you read that right, I have my own mantra (Josh put it in a race plan a few months back)…and I ran a really slow mile (for me) @ 11:01.The cramp was easing up a tiny bit but my breathing was doing the opposite and became super labored and quick. I started feeling a little fuzzy but kept running. All of a sudden, Keith ran up behind me. Spirit pacer, help me! I thought this is great, I’ll follow Keith and the pace group to the finish so I can think less and run more. He gave me great advice – he remembered I wanted a sub 340, and told me not to follow him up Electric Hill (known as the worst hill of the course – like two harlem hills back to back, winding) since he was picking it up a bit to make up time. (Don’t leave me Keith!). He told me to get up this evil hill one way or another, just keep pushing forward, one foot in front of the other. He left me with the last magical words “you can still BQ – you got this!” Ok Keith! Thank you for believing in me!! Can’t let down my spirit pacer and his amazing pink tutu.
- 23.5 – 24 – Survive! I let Keith and the pace group go, and shuffled up a little behind him. He got farther and farther from me but I thought, just get up the hill and then pick it up. Alas, all the mental energy in the world can’t save you if your body starts failing. All of a sudden I felt dizzy and someone grabbed me. A spectator told me she caught me because I almost fell over sideways. What the hell body, I’m working with positive vibes here, what gives? I walked the rest of the hill. I simply didn’t have the energy to move any second faster while my breathing was fast. Did I want to cry? Yes, but I didn’t let myself. I wasn’t ready to give up. Did I start making back up marathon plans to run MCM, Philly, or Richmond? Yes, I made a lot of plans in what was probably 2-3 minutes, but then I knocked my brain out of negative thinking. NO! Today is my day! Today, not a different day. I hit the mile 24 marker at the top of the hill, looked at my watch and it read 3:16:00. I had 23 minutes to run 2.2 miles for my A Goal of 3:37. There’s still a chance. Keith was right. Holy shit, I can still do this, right here, right now. Better to sum up all the energy I have left in my body to run 2.2 than take the safe route and have to race another marathon for my BQ dreams. I knew it would take everything I had in me to get this done, but I’m no quitter. Let’s do this.
- Mile 25: One tough cookie – 8:25. I honestly have no clue how I ran this mile. There was a bit of downhill, but then some rollers if I remember correctly. I was delusional. They say that once the legs give out, it’s all heart. And that’s what it was. I wanted this so damn badly, and as long as I didn’t pass out, I was getting to that finish line. I almost cried at some point but knew it’d speed up my breathing so I held it together and told myself I could cry all the happy tears at the finish when I BQ’ed. I knew I didn’t look good on this mile but I kept one foot in front of the other. I used landmarks – run to the tree – run to the house, run to volunteer.
- Mile 26: Change your life forever – 9:00. Dramatic mantra, right? No pressure! I knew I’d see my friends around the hill which was 25.6-26.0 (yup, you read that right, a final triumph and challenge to overcome). The first part of mile 26 should have been easy, I think it was flat-ish and a bit of a downhill but it still felt hard. The pure motion of running and not standing still and sitting down was hard. But I had one more mile, just a little bit more to go. Once I turned to get to the final street where the final Cooper Hill and the finish line were waiting, I started pushing a bit more. It was so damn hard. But then I got a nice downhill before the big uphill to get some strength back and my resolve ready. I willed myself up the first, more aggressive , part of the hill (counted 1-10, ran on my toes, tried to have good form but know I was all over the place – wilted lettuce as Josh would say). Then came a more mellow uphill with a small gradual incline. It would have been a breeze if it wasn’t mile 26. Gamechanger moment – I spotted my friends cheering. Save me friends! Natalie ran up to me (in her casual sneakers and leather jacket!) and ran along side me for the second half of the climb. What a champ, I can’t thank her enough! She motivated me the whole time when I could barely breath and got me all the way to the mile 26 marker. I didn’t look at my watch – I would have cried if I saw I missed my time but had already prepared myself mentally for Goal B (right under 3:40).
- Mile 26-26.2 I can and I will – 7:30. Downhill, hallelujah! I saw the finish at the bottom of the downhill and picked up my pace. I started fishing – picking a runner or a volunteer and running fast until I passed them. .2 is short in theory but long when it’s at the end of a race and all you want to do is finish. I ran as fast as my legs allowed. Go Go Go Go Go. I crossed the finish line. I looked at watch. 3:36. Whaaaat?! I had not only gotten a 5 minute PR but also gotten a strong BQ (A goal was 3:37). I had finished this crazy amazing zen challenging marathon over 3 minutes under the qualifying time for Boston. I was in shock for a minute, it was so overwhelming and exciting and amazing at the same time. Especially after those last 3 miles of pain and pure will to finish. I did it. I did it all by myself – after 7 marathons, this was the first marathon I ran from start to finish by myself (no running buddies), and I had qualified for Boston. Woah.
The long rambling story could end there, but alas, we continue. Right after the finish line, I was yanked off the street and taken to medical. Apparently I looked like I was about to go down and my breathing was really fast. I didn’t feel that myself but man was I tired! I can honestly say I gave the race every ounce of energy I had in every cell of my body. I didn’t end up fainting, everything was ok, but a team of medics circled me to check my vitals a few times, and tried, unsuccessfully to give me an IV for fluids. Apparently my blood pressure was too high so they stabbed me a few times and gave up. I had a moment where I panicked and they thought I was feeling ill again but it was just me realizing I didn’t get a medal yet haha. That’s how you know I was delusional! I let someone take me off the course before I got my hardware? Not cool!
I was finally dismissed, got my medal (finally!) and found Becca. We shared some tears knowing we both hit our goals (she had a kickass race as well and also found the course CHALLENGING) and we found our support crew and jumped up and down in joy. Ok not so much jumping since I fell over trying to do my signature finish line jump shot, but we hugged and rejoiced. What. A. Race.
This race was a year in the making. I gave the physical training everything I could. Thank you Josh for getting me ready – I couldn’t have done it without you, I know that for a fact. Thank you Christine for inspiring me to run Steamtown after you raved about it in 2015, and thank you for 8 years of inspiration through leading Team in Training and helping me become a stronger runner and coach. You’ve taught me to run, and coach, with heart. Thank you to Krista, to Mike, and to all my friends who’ve followed my journey and created the ultimate running family. You all helped me believe.
“She believed she could so she did”
Here’s the post race selfie with the best Scranton Support Crew of all time. Victory, and multi berry pancakes never tasted so good. Highly recommend State Street Grill for your post Steamtown eats! Those 6 dishes were split across the crew. Ok fine, I ate most of the pancakes. Also recommend the Plate D’Azure near Forest City for chocolate chip banana pancakes.
Till next time. Run smart, run strong, run happy….and run towards pancakes.