Why this race?
Mike and I set our sights on the Jack and Jill Downhill Marathon in North Bend, Washington not only as an opportunity to see a new beautiful destination after staying close to home for over a year due to COVID, but also with the intention of performing at a speed that gave us as much time below the Boston Marathon qualifying standard as possible to ensure we were accepted, as the cushion requirements have become increasingly more competitive. Mike, with his supernatural talent and years of top-level competition would likely qualify with ease on any course. I, still being in the youngest age group (18-34) for two more years and not being superhuman, needed to run well under the qualifying time of 3:30 (in 2018, it was 3:35!) but also under 3:22 (the slowest accepted for 2021 was over 7 min under the standard, whereas my previous qualifying time was 4 minutes and 46 seconds under the qualifying standard. This course being a very gentle downhill combined with my personal proclivity towards strong downhill finishes at ultra races suggested an optimal outcome for me, and so the training began specifically for this race in late May.
The lead up:
May was a tricky month for me because the winter and spring had been riddled with Epstein Barr virus intermittency that I’d recently calmed down, but in response to the COVID vaccine (Moderna) and other life stress, reactivated. Thankfully, it is largely resolved now. Treatment took a lot out of my energy stores, and my running performance tanked. Nevertheless, the peace that I find in the flow state of running as well as in exploring mountain trails remained non-negotiable for my mental health, and I was not interested in wasting anymore race entries unless essential. I resolved to train as I could and perform the best I could! Once Terrapin Half and Promise Land were behind me, I agreed to my doctor’s request to take a 30 day easy period and limited by long runs to under 10 miles and no easy runs over 6 miles. My speed work was short and at my top speeds. At the end of May, I raced Conquer the Cove (3rd female) and found myself feeling very well. I had stopped taking my pharmaceutical prescriptions for Epstein Barr and have not resumed them since. I experienced many side effects while taking them, and it’s nice to have my body back to myself.
I always look forward to summer time, but I also dread summer training. However, just as I remind my clients to focus on effort and trust that the cumulative, consistent training in the soupy heat compounds come fall. However, my race wasn’t in the fall; it was midsummer! So I opted to take my quality sessions (once per week) to the treadmill, where I could get both incline and decline specificity for optimal race preparation. Investigation of gym temperatures indicated that I was still training warmer than average race day temperatures in North Bend, so I found that encouraging. I know the treadmill isn’t for everyone, but solo training requires a lot of mental energy, and I was already training at speeds I’d never come close to racing before in the marathon distance, and too much stress physically and mentally was not worth the risk given the limited amount of time I had to train, not to mention the damage diminished confidence from failed workouts can have on race day performance.
I recruited friends for my long and easy runs, which was a huge boost mentally after some hot, late morning runs that I had taken on solo. Not fun! Training partners are not to be undervalued in the process; if you don’t have one or a few, I highly recommend you start looking in your community!
In this training block, later workouts included a half marathon at a progressive pace (PR: 1:32:30), a 14 mile race simulation (7:14 pace average), and a 10 mile progressive (10K PR of 43:32). I will be completely honest with you, the final 10 day taper was awful! I wasn’t injured, but my body was sluggish and sore from easy runs, a 4x800m workout (at 7:15 pace!), and climbing the stairs. I spoke with a few friends on their preparation going for personal record marathon paces to gain perspective and resolve. The taper is purely mental. But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it physically! Regardless, trust your training, and don’t do anything dumb like sprint through an airport to make your (now boarding) connecting flight the day before your marathon...just kidding, you’ll still be okay! (This happened to us - the day before was more stressful than I’d prefer)
We woke up at 3:00 AM. Coffee was preprogrammed and by 3:15 Mike had eggs scrambled and ready. I always struggle to eat on race day, but knowing the effort ahead of me, I knew fueling well was non-negotiable. I applied body glide EVERYWHERE, KT tape under my sports bra, selected the 3:15 pace band from the three I grabbed at packet pick up (my B goal), and that time before leaving the house flew on by! We drove from where we were staying in Snoqualmie Pass all the way down to North Bend (30 min away) to load the buses. The wait to get into the parking lot was pretty long, but we managed to park and load onto a bus departing for the marathon start at Hyak Park with relative ease. We weren’t sure where the bag drop was, but it appeared to not be located here, so we loaded the bus with all of our drop bag items once we saw others seemed to be carrying extra gear onto the bus! The drive to the start was around 40 minutes long, during which we had witnessed the full moon (these definitely affect my energy, but I’d intentionally done a hard workout on the June full moon to train my brain and body to be successful in spite of it) above the mountains as the sky lightened, giving way to the sunrise. By the time we arrived, I was needing a bathroom! Luckily, the lines weren’t long, and afterwards, we sat on the ground to wait a bit. It was around 5:40 at that time, and the race started at 6:30. We took some pictures, and I made a final status post before going into airplane mode!
I'm liking Mike's fauxhawk here.
Document these shoes in their first race!
Not a bad view for bathrooms, huh?
Finally 6:10 approached and we dropped our bag near the start (and by bag drop) to begin our warm-up. I felt pretty good, though the alph fly shoes felt so weird. I’d waited over a year to finally race in these shoes, so this was exciting!
The race directors began announcing it was time to line up, stating the first wave would be 7:30 pace and faster. Can I just say how hard it was to swallow my fear and move into the back of wave 1? I finished my leg swings, gave Mike a kiss and a high five, and moments later, this marathon was starting!
The first half mile rolled. People were flying all around me. I looked at my watch several times to make sure I wasn’t being dumb (binary choices are my jam on race day!) and quickly realized the ease of 7:00 minute pace would result in inevitable misery later. Let the people go. Be smart and reel them in later. Miles .5 to 2.5 were through the Snoqualmie Tunnel, hence the requirement for headlamps. It was a really cool experience, but two important challenges lie within this section: 1) loss of GPS skews pacing slower and 2) uneven surface. I rolled my ankle twice, but it didn’t hurt. I knew I needed to be very careful with my foot placement, especially given the shoe stack height. I also realized that my effort didn’t align with the suggested pace on my watch, and while others around me may be pushing harder to make their effort align with their watches, it would be best for me to stay relaxed and rely on effort as my compass. Towards the end of the tunnel, it was time to shut off the headlamp and place it in the bag for drop-off on the other side. The things we do while racing! That went without a hitch, and in the not-so-far distance I could see the mile 3 banner. I passed by it at 2.8 miles, which was an affirmation that effort reliance paid off in the tunnel, because I was only slightly ahead of the target 3:15 finishing time for that mileage.
I was slightly concerned about how easy headlamp drop would be. Not the best photo, but okay!
The light at the end of the tunnel!
The view as you exit the tunnel. We came back another day for a run to reflect and capture the views!
I’d had a smart start, but I was playing with fire in the first 10 miles. The gorgeous views had me on cloud nine. Mountains, ravines, rivers below, mature trees. Just, wow. The crushed gravel rolled under foot. I looked at my watch and YIKES… 6:50 current pace. This pace was 25 seconds under goal pace, no, no, no. I pulled back from behind the person I was following. His pace was smooth, but too fast. As there were no pacers, I needed to rely fully on myself today. I settled back into appropriate pacing, varying from 7:15-7:25. Right where I needed to be in order to avoid a wall in the final 10K. I’d decided the first 10 miles is all about settling into pace and racing with the brain, outsmarting the survivor instincts that come with adrenaline. The downhill was definitely making it hard for me to keep my legs on target pace. I refueled at 4 miles with a 1x chocolate huma, chasing it with Nuun endurance (mango flavor) from my handheld bottle.
I took water at every aid station, which was about every 2 miles. I continued to check my elapsed time at each mile marker, noticing my total time and the projected 3:15 time were growing from 45 second difference to a minute and half (my time was faster). I took plenty of deep breaths recognizing that I just needed to keep moving forward while continuing to monitor pace and pulling back as needed. I took another huma gel (berry) at mile 9. Fueling was going seamlessly. At the half marathon mark, there were a fair amount of spectators, for the first time really! The ground was uneven and rockier here, so I paid careful attention, though I somehow managed to still roll my ankle on the early end of this course despite the sunlight.
Speaking of sunlight (and heat), the weather was pretty mild, 55º at the start. While runners ahead of me kicked up dust from the trail, I could avoid breathing it in by running on the other side or making more distance between us. The heat definitely became more evident as the race continued, but the sun was on my back instead of my face, and the towering trees provided shade protection from the sun. Really, perfect conditions for a large amount of the race, other than the full moon, of course.
Back to the race. After the half marathon mark, I noticed that gentle tugging in my calves and hamstrings and felt triggered by what had transpired at Promise Land. Electrolyte tablets had remedied full fledged muscle cramps, so I knew I needed double electrolytes in my next huma gel at mile 14. When mile 14 came, I pulled out a 2x electrolyte strawberry lemonade flavor, took it, and chased it with electrolytes. Experiencing those tugs rattled my confidence a bit, as I was well into the second leg of this race (mile 10-20) where I should rely on my strength, and as my friend Sophie Lambert encouraged me, I called upon my power workouts. I’d run 14 miles progressively faster with an average of 7:14 pace. By 15 miles, I’d already won by running further and faster than I ever have at 7:14 pace (which is what my watch was saying my average pace was at that time). I’d tapered, my legs were healed and primed, and just as all races have high points, they also have low points. Here was mine, and I told myself it wouldn’t last. And it didn’t. Any of you reading and hoping your marathon doesn’t hurt or have hard parts, they do hurt, but they don’t have to hurt the whole time, and the story you tell yourself influences this perception of discomfort, and that comes from a person with very low pain tolerance. Remind yourself this is temporary, call on your accomplishments in your training and past successes, and take a deep breath as you witness your mindset perform magic!
One of the many bridges on the course!
And so at this point, it’s mile by mile. I tell myself, it’s a gentle downhill, so just keep turning over. At mile 18, you take a huma gel (with caffeine). At mile 19, there’s a water stop. Throw water over your head and walk as you steadily suck down another cup of water. Time is on your side. Use the word “you” when you talk to yourself; psychologically this helps will your thoughts into existence. At mile 19, I passed a woman who before the race had said her goal time was 3:15 but had taken off. I passed her at a strong pace, said good job, and never saw her again. Mile 20 approached, and it’s the final leg of marathon racing. Again, I recognized all the things that had gone well: waking up on time, loading the bus, not tanking in the first half of the race, my fueling plan going so smoothly, and finally, I’d now run 20 miles at 7:13 pace. Again, I’d won. By this point, I knew if I kept going no matter what happened, I’d PR... by a lot. There was no attachment to the outcome because I’d already acknowledged so much success, and I wasn’t miserable. I didn’t even want to quit. The descent was flattening out, and again, I took this a mile at a time, aid station by aid station. Doing so gave me mini-victories, and you know I was victory-dancing in my mind!
As I approached the aid station at mile 21, a female ran up from behind me. She looked comfortable and smooth, obviously having found a way to run a more relaxed first half marathon than me, but it’s fine. This isn’t about where I stack up against others; it’s about my own personal goals, and my A goal was within grasp. We turned shortly thereafter for the first time off the long gentle downhill slope onto a dirt-packed winding double track. Oh man, this was my jam! Winding trail is where I lose all sense of speed and just flow. I looked down and found myself at 6:30 pace. No, no. Yes, I was in the final 10K, and it’s time to run with my heart, but not yet with wild abandon. Not yet. I pulled back and the trail gradually straightened out as we began running in more of a community park-like trail. We passed more and more half-marathoners, and then another female passed me. She also looked smooth, and so I took a self inventory. Was I relaxed and allowing my turnover to flow? Relax your shoulders, steady your breath, keep your stride strong but efficient. Mile 22 came, and it was time for my final huma gel. I took it, walked through the water stop to again toss water over my head and take another cup of water for drinking. There was a man I’d run several later miles near, and I set my sights on gradually regaining ground on him, which I was able to do. The other women were continuing to pull away, and 4 miles was still a long way to push at top effort without forsaking all miles prior.
Mile 23 came surprisingly fast. 3.2 more miles, then 3.1 miles, then less than a 5k! So I focused on the mile I was in, pumping myself up with music and telling myself to just keep turning over and do the best you can do. You’ve come this far; don’t throw it all away now! I also thought to myself I will be so close to 3:10, my A goal. I took a chance and shot for the moon and will be so pleased where I land. Just keep going!
Mile 24 came, and I was amazed to see my pace not slow down, especially my average pace, which remained at 7:12, much faster than a 3:10 finish - did I avoid the bonk, the wall? I was running my strongest, most beautifully executed marathon ever! What an incredible day. Just keep running and rocking out!
As I write this, I notice that I feel compelled to make new paragraphs for each of the final miles, even though they clicked by pretty quickly. I jammed out to my music and counted down approximate minutes. 10 ish minutes to finish. Only 10 ish minutes! Finally mile 25 arrived with a water stop. Again, I stopped for a cup of water to cool my head off and another final cup for drinking. Another female passed me, also looking strong! I began jogging again, feeling the fatigue finally take over, but I still managed to swing between 6:50 and 7:20 pace fairly consistently. Just keep going. It’s funny because it seems like not long after the 25 mile marker, I look at my watch and it’s already 25.3 miles, almost halfway through the mile - less than a mile to go! I approached a photographer before a turn, turned on my happiest, strongest face, and ran past. I wanted photo memories that matched the excitement I felt within.
You can see how the chafing under my arms became... more severe. Luckily, I could not feel it.
Just over a mile to go!
About a tenth of a mile later, I could smell the finish and my pace was quickening, but so also was my heart rate, as well as an intensified perceived rate of exertion. I also realized I’d certainly finish in under 3:10, and processing that was both elating and shocking. So, I pulled back and gave myself a 20 second walk. Maybe I didn’t want it to be over and wanted to savor this success privately before I shared my victory with others. I could have kept going… maybe? I don’t know. I approached mile 26 and turned to see the finisher chute, lined with national flags, and I was so thrilled. I looked down at my watch to see 3:07 high. I was pushing to increase my turnover and also skipping songs to find one that matched my energy. This took a little while. I don’t even remember what was playing when I entered the chute.
I saw Mike standing on the left in between flags cheering for me. I yelled at him and yelled “yeah” with a raised fist. I could see the clock now. 3:08 high, but I could still finish under 3:10, maybe 3:09! I smiled from ear to ear and crossed the finish line with an official time of 3:08:57, setting a personal record by 16 minutes 17 seconds! I qualified for Boston by 21 minutes 3 seconds as well as New York (3:13 and under) and Chicago!
The screen grab I took from the finisher video was more flattering than the finish line photo, in my opinion.
I learned soon after that I was 3rd in my age group and 11th female, but more importantly, Mike won the race outright in 2:41! Just amazing. He and I both saw to it that we had great races so that we could savor our victories the remainder of our trip in the Pacific Northwest. I had the race of my life (to date). I believe that I suffered well and executed my race beautifully. Yes, I walked through water stops and walked for 15 seconds at the end, but I could because it improved my overall response to the heat and load, also allowing me to experience brief recovery intervals, which usually works for me very well anyway.
I'm so amazed and proud of Mike!
Basking in the experience!
My technical notes and feedback for the course are as follows:
- I found this road race to be the most beautiful road race I’ve ever run! So scenic, straightforward, not overly crowded, a trail runner's dream for road running!
- GPS was fickle the entirety of the tunnel and intermittently throughout the course, so at many times, my intensity was based on effort and mile markers. Later in the race, the course does flatten out moreso, but the elevation profile doesn't indicate this.
- The footing in the tunnel was challenging and wet in some places, so don't overlook the importance of quality lighting.
- I do think the dust intensified chafing, particularly under my arms, so be liberal with body glide!
- The alphafly shoes caused some blistering on my arches and beside my big toe. The blister on my arch thankfully popped around mile 19, but the other one was throbbing after I removed my shoes. I attribute this to usually wearing lime superfeet for arch support. Also, beware of the stack height. The shoes took off a great deal of shock from the ongoing downhill, but it was easy in gravel to roll an ankle!
Here is my data:
If you’ve gotten this far, I appreciate you taking the time to read my race report. This experience was very special, and while I usually write race reports for trail races, I thought this road race to be the most beautiful road race I’ve ever run, and it was the race of my life!