When my watch beeped after mile 17 of Sunday’s 20 mile race and 7:22 popped up on the screen of my Garmin, this thought popped up in my mind: There is strength inside me. I’ve always known it was there…today it has come out to play.
I have never felt so strong and confident in a race before, especially one of this distance. And there’s something about strong and confident in a race that makes it feel like “play:” carefree, relaxed, fun. Despite the less-than desirable conditions, Sunday’s race was a “dance in the rain.”
Expectations and Race Plan: My expectation going into the race was that it wasn’t really a “race” at all, really just a 20 mile training run that I paid for. I was excited to meet up with Bekah and Raquelle who I’d met through Instagram and run with them.
They had a goal pace in mind and it forced me to think about how I wanted to run the 20 miles. Saturday night I decided there were two options and that I’d make a decision during the race depending on the weather. The first option was to run all 20 miles at “easy or long run pace” for me that would be 8:30’s. The second would be to run the first 13 at easy/long run pace and then try to drop down to an 8 min pace for the last 7 miles. I let them both know my thoughts on the race and they encouraged me to do whatever felt best.
PreRace and Gear Choices: The forecast for Sunday’s race was not a pleasant one. The temps wouldn’t get out of the 30’s, they were calling for driving rain and flood warnings and the winds looked to be incredibly strong 20-25mph.
I had agonized over what to wear. I didn’t want to be covered in extra, soaking wet layers I didn’t need. I had settled on capris, a t-shirt under my Oiselle Flyer Jacket (which is awesome by the way), super light weight gloves and a hat. But stern warnings from the race director on hypothermia, plus the driving rain outside, plus the fact that they changed the half-marathon to a 10 mile race because of the conditions caused me to reach for another long-sleeve layer and I wore that. I wish I hadn’t cause I ended up stripping off the jacket at mile 4. I would have perfectly comfortable without the long sleeve. I opted to wear my Saucony Kinvara since they are breathable and dry out quickly when wet. I was tempted to wear my Saucony Rides which are heavier and have a more traditional running shoe construction (i.e. more fabric) but thought they would get soaking wet, heavy and not dry out as quickly. My decision was put to the test around mile 5/6 when I ran through an ankle deep puddle of freezing cold water. My feet were wet for maybe a half mile then they seemed to dry out quickly.
Race: Eastern States is a pretty relaxed race. You walk to the start, stand around and when everyone starts running you go to. By the time we headed to the start the downpour had subsided and it was a drizzly mist. It was still darn cold and windy, but at least it wasn’t pouring.
Mile 1-4: The first four miles took us out onto New Castle Island and directly into a headwind. The gusts of wind had me hanging on to my hat. Beka, Raquelle and I ran side by side and kept a pretty steady pace: 8:32, 8:12, 8:08, 8:14
Mile 5-10: At mile 5 1/2 the road was basically flooded and we ran through ankle deep water trying to avoid it. I took my first GU around mile 6 and took about three miles to eat it. Around mile 7 I thought to myself: I feel strong. This feels light and easy. Around mile 8 we turned south and the 20mph wind turned into a tailwind. It was a relief after fighting the gusts for the first half. At the halfway point I was still feeling strong and was thinking that in a few miles I’d make a move to speed things up. 8:09, 8:27, 7:48, 8:10, 8:00, 8:07
Mile 11-12: It was in these two miles that I felt like my body wanted to go. I maintained my pace, but felt like I was holding back, like I was chomping at the bit. I tried to stay relaxed and decided that when mile 12 finished I start to make a move. It was earlier than I anticipated, but I reasoned with myself that 8 miles to the finish was just like any other weekday run. 8:15, 8:14
Mile 13-14: After mile 12 clicked by I said goodbye to Bekah and Raquelle and started to move. I felt relaxed and strong and my new faster pace felt comfortable. I started to take my second GU and spent the rest of the mile taking little bits of it. When 7:57 clicked by on my watch I thought about the pace, the remaining miles and what I wanted to do. What about a progression? I thought. What if I make this a progression and see if I can drop the pace every mile. At this point I didn’t have an “end pace” in mind, just the thought that as each mile passed I’d try to drop the pace. It is one thing to want to do something, it is another thing entirely to execute it. I recalled my Hood to Coast experience and my second leg, where I ran perfect eight mile progression. I can do this. I’ve done it before. When mile 14 beeped at 7:42. I got a surge of confidence. Six miles to go, it’s like a 10K.
Mile 15-16: Mile 15 clicked by in 7:37 and again I felt a surge of confidence at the thought that I’d successfully dropped the pace again and didn’t feel like I was dying. At this point the pace felt “right.” My mind and body were working together in a way that made the effort feel effortless. Just after mile 15 we took a quick side route through a neighbor hood and up a slight incline, then it was back down onto Rt. 1A. I felt like I’d slowed a bit so I wasn’t surprised to see 7:38 pace at the 16 mile mark. But the thought that there were only three miles to go put a surge in my step and I was determined to make mile 17 strong.
Mile 17: It was in mile 17 that it all hit me…about halfway through the mile I felt amazed by my own strength. I’d already run four strong, progressively faster miles and only had three to go. When I daydream about running I dream about running smooth and powerfully. Digging into a reserve of strength and finishing strong. And here I was executing that daydream. I’ve always known that I’m strong, that I’m capable of more than I think that I am. But on Sunday I saw evidence of that. It felt a little surreal. Never would I have imagined that I could run 7:xx in a 20 mile race. At least not at the end of a 20 mile race. My pace was steady. And when 7:22 beeped on my Garmin I did a little happy dance inside. Three more miles. I can drop the pace for three more miles. I know I can. I’ve done it this far, I can finish it off.
Mile 18-19: I honestly felt like I was floating past the runners around me, like I had some unfair advantage. I could see the fatigue in their gate, it’s one I know all to well. It’s that tired slogging feeling that I’ve felt at the end of almost every marathon I’ve run. That feeling that you just.want.to.stop. That you can’t seem to make your body move the way you want to. Oh! I have been there. But on Sunday I was worlds away from that feeling. My body was moving in accordance with my mind; my mind said “go,” my body moved faster. Mile 18 and 19 clicked by in 7:19 and 7:03.
Mile 20: After seeing 7:03 I wanted to drop the pace into the 6’s for the last mile. But it proved to be a battle. We came up a small rise and around a turn and the wind seemed to change. I could see the finish line down the beach, but the wind was in my face now, at my side: it seemed to swirl. Now the pace felt like a hard effort. Legs go! Arms go! C’mon Sarah! You can do it!
I crossed the line in 2:37:07 (7:51 pace). My Garmin never beeped mile 20 because it came up .08 short. I ran the .92 in 6:09 for a 6:41 average. I dropped that last mile to a pace I only imagined I could race in a 5K or 10K, never at the end of a 20 miler. I finished 29th woman out of 264 and 101 overall out of 456 runners.
Take-Away: Sunday wasn’t a fluke. There are reasons why I ran strong and was able to execute a great race. The primary reason why I ran well is higher weekly milage. I’m better prepared than I have ever been to run well at every distance. Run more. Run faster. I’ve done minimal speed work and very few tempo runs, but my weekly mileage is high (for me) and that has me prepared. I’m also more dedicated to cross training. On Sunday I felt like the power and strength for my run was coming from my core and hips, which are stronger than ever thanks to barre class.
I also confirmed that I’m the kind of runner who likes to finish fast. I recall reading a commentary from Kara Goucher as she trained with Shalane Flanagan for the London Olympics. When asked to compare the their racing styles, Kara commented that Shalane was the kind of runner who could go out at goal pace, no matter how bad it hurt and hurt the whole time and still finish strong. Goucher said that she wasn’t that kind of runner, she was the kind of runner who liked to finish fast. She had a kick. I think the same is true of me when it comes to races. I’m not the kind of runner that can go out and hammer race pace from the start. I’m not sure I’ll ever be. I race well when I start slow and pick up speed, because as I gain speed I gain confidence and that confidence feeds into more speed.
Eastern States was a huge confidence boost for me and a great learning experience.
Have you ever felt strong in a race before? Have you run Eastern States?
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