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Finding Limits: Looking Back at my First Marathon and Forward to my First Ultra

Ever since mentioning my entry in the Cape Wrath Ultra I’ve been getting a lot more running-related questions, as well as questions about my sanity and why a marathon isn’t long enough. I wanted to take a personal post to breakdown why, for me, a marathon just wasn’t enough. Please note that I do mention aspects of my sexual assault and some people may find that difficult to read.

 

The Why

I’ve always been a bit of a masochist when it comes to running. I naturally have a slightly aggressive, goal-oriented personality and I pour it into the things I love, like my favorite sport. The more difficult, more intense, and the more it made other people cringe, the better. If it seems impossible and challenging, and like something that requires an immense about of grit, then I’m in.

Summer 2013 was the first time in my life that I wasn’t training for a comp season with a team. Without a coach and a training program, my running went from being regimented to sporadic. It’s a very weird feeling to slowly stop doing something you used to do daily, but I figured that maybe my time as a runner was over and I focused on other sports, like swimming. And then, in late July 2013, I was sexually assaulted. I don’t think I need to dive too deep into how fracturing and disorienting the aftermath of an assault is. It happened when I was working on my college campus, which was empty for the Summer. I was far from my family and had only one friend I could talk to on campus. I didn’t have access to mental health services. I was isolated and scared and starving for a way to feel like myself again.

I set a goal to run a marathon, on less than three months of training, two weeks before my 20th birthday. I found the race, the same marathon my dad had run a few decades prior, paid the money, and told myself I would figure out the rest.

I felt it was the perfect intersection of reclaiming control over my life and the nostalgic “coming home” feeling of running the same route my dad had run.

 

The 2013 Baltimore Marathon

I got in touch with a former coach, got a few pointers, worked out a training schedule and got to work. It’s true what they say about Fall races, it means all your training will be in suffocating heat all Summer. I managed to hit the mileage I was looking for and going up to race day was feeling nervous, but pretty confident in my training. Personally, I’ve always found that to be the best mix of emotions at the start line. A little bit of nerves is healthy, you should have butterflies, but you should also be confident in the work you’ve put in and where that prep can take you.

I had high hopes for this race. At the start line I truly felt like I was 26.2 miles from my old self. Crossing the finishing line was underwhelming, to say the least. I was vaguely proud of myself and happy to have crossed off a bucket list item, but where was the moment of enlightenment? Where was the high of accomplishment? I didn’t feel “done”, I didn’t feel “fixed”, I felt like a disappointment. Like I could have done more. Like I should’ve done more. Like I had ruined my chance at “healing”. The point of this race was to reclaim a piece of myself, to push myself harder than I ever had before and come out on the other side feeling like I’d won not just the battle, but the whole war.

I replayed that race over and over, critiquing every decision I made. I didn’t push myself hard enough at the start, I should have paced for a faster mile time, I should have been negatively splitting. I should’ve done this. I should’ve done that. I kept wanting to open up more, but I was too in my own head about everything I had been told by coaches, my dad, running blogs, and my own years of training to allow myself to push faster. I spent the first 18 miles holding back, anticipating the notorious “wall” that crushes people. For me, that wall never came. I cruised miles 18-26 with just as much energy and ease as the first eight. The ease of it was really upsetting for me.

the only photo I have of that day memorialized in stunning iPhone 4 quality

To say my ego was bruised is a massive understatement. So much of my identity is wrapped up in who I am as a runner, and after being assaulted I badly wanted to reconnect with that side of myself. I was so concerned about the 18-20 mile wall that I held back and once I got there I didn’t have the distance to make up the time. There’s a lot of planning that goes into each race and I was a Class A example of what overplanning can do to your race. It prevents you from trusting your intuition and keeps you so “in your head” that you’re unable to make dynamic decisions. In my opinion, if you lose that agility you aren’t racing.

 

Post Race

After the race I was tired, I was sore, and mentally it took me a long time to want to run again. I remember people asking me about the race and fake smiling my way through lies about how great it was and how accomplished I felt. Running has been my life since I was six, I’ve raced on numerous track and cross country teams, raced competitively since I was old enough to be entered, ran in middle school, high school, and college. Post-college I would go on to be sponsored by Nuun, GU Energy, RoadID, and various other brands, competing as an amateur athlete. Running a marathon was supposed to be where my nearly two decades of this sport culminated. It was what I felt like my entire running career had been prepping me for.

This race was supposed to radically push my limits. I wanted to crawl across the finish line with a time I was incredibly proud of. I wanted to give this race everything I could and dump all my darkness into its miles. I just wanted to feel okay. Going into the race my goal was to finish around 3:18 with a 7:32/mile pace. I knew that pace would push me and get me what I wanted, but it was risky. I didn’t have a huge training base and pushing too hard could land me in a med tent. I held back and held back and held back and finished over an hour after I initially had planned to. The best word I can use to describe how I felt after the marathon? Gutted.

I’ve always considered myself, in every athletic undertaking, as a competitor, not a completer. I wasn’t there to finish, I was there to race. Crossing the line at 4:44:47 I felt like a completer, which is enough for some, but not for me. Mixed with the feeling of underaccomplishing I also felt immensely guilty. I knew I had hit a time a lot of people work years for. I knew I had covered a distance that sits on some people’s bucket lists for decades. I knew this distance, this time was a big deal to a lot of people, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. That made me feel incredibly guilty. How dare I not be happy after a marathon? I didn’t share these feelings with anyone, fearing that I would be looked at as ungrateful. And it was nearly a year before I laced up again.

Maybe if I had pushed myself I’d have been completely whipped at mile 18, or maybe I should have trusted my training more and it would have carried me through. The difficulty with planning for endurance racing is that you need to believe equally in all the prep you’ve done and what that’s taught you, along with everything you are experiencing in real-time. Running is 80% mental and the ability to synthesize what you know with what you are learning in the moment is crucial. Despite studying the course map and elevation guides, training hills, and prepping extensively for what I was told over and over was the “hilliest marathon around” I was still unable to open up in the areas where I should have.

This race didn’t push my limits in a lot of ways, mostly because I didn’t let it. I didn’t let myself come against the edge of what’s possible for me. I was so worried about popping the clutch I wasn’t releasing at all. I was so scared of bottoming out that I was white-knuckling my pace instead of doing what came naturally. I had planned to run the race nearly identical to how my dad ran it, using my first five miles as a warm-up, with a slow acceleration into race pace over the the next five. Instead, I stayed where I was out of fear of risking too much too quickly. Ironically, I have never raced like this. My coach used to say “You go out with the jackrabbits”. I always gun it from the gate and hold on as long as possible. I knew this strategy worked fairly well for me on a 3-mile course and knew it absolutely wouldn’t for a marathon. In an attempt to harness my urge to break out I held myself back too much.

 

Looking back

Today, six years later, I have no regrets about that race. I was incredibly inexperienced with that distance (it was 22 miles further than my longest race) so I held back more than I should have, it happens. Overthinking happens, and I did the best I could with what I had. I didn’t push myself into a medical emergency, I didn’t DNF (Did Not Finish) or worse DNS (Did Not Start), I ran the full race. Was it a perfect race? Definitely not. Did it set me up with a PR to smash in later races? Definitely.

It took me years to be able to step back, look at my 19-year-old self, and see how much I was hurting that day. My inability to fully trust my training and push during that race came from an inability to trust myself. I didn’t have the confidence to feel like I could step into the arena. I was trying as hard as I could to “fake it til you make it”, but after my assault, I wasn’t just broken, I was shattered.

I was assaulted on my college campus, in my room, in my bed. I woke up the next morning at 4 am, went to the college pool I was a lifeguard at and slept on the bleachers.

I trained for 50-60 miles a week, for six weeks (until the semester started), and each night came back to that room and slept on a 3mm yoga mat on the floor because I mentally and physically couldn’t get into my bed.

I look back at that race and I don’t give a fuck about my time. I think about that race in terms of the weeks that led up to it and how strong I was in my vulnerability. I think about it in terms of the miles I ran at 2 am after waking up with a panic attack. I think about that race in terms of how many times I stood against people who blamed me for it with literal tears in my eyes, but never once questioning if it was my fault. But mostly, I think about that race as the moment I realized how far I had to go in my recovery.

So why not just run another marathon, crush my time, and move on?

When I think about the marathon distance I think about something that I completed in my weakest moment. When my identity was splintered. When I was completely shattered. When I felt like a shell of who I am. But I am not that person anymore. I’m the strongest and most confident version of myself. I feel fiery and brave and capable. And I know the place where I will challenge myself most lies beyond the 26.2 miles I ran October 12, 2013.

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