The Austin Marathon: Challenging and Hilly

I’ve never had a baby or even been pregnant, but based on anecdotes from my friends and relatives who have had babies in recent years, pregnancy and childbirth seem at least a little bit analogous to training for and running a marathon. There’s the initial stage of joy upon signing up for the race and sharing the news with family and friends, followed by months of preparation filled with excitement, anxiety, discomfort, and doubt, culminating in a day’s worth of labor and physical challenge, at the end of which a shiny new medal hangs from your neck.

Obviously, the two experiences aren’t quite the same; if they were, I’d have seventeen kids by now. But, that finisher’s medal is a symbol of achievement and determination, of something no one can ever take away from me. It is a physical reminder to me of what I have accomplished, of how I have pushed through physical pain and kept going when I wanted to stop. Much like having a baby (from what I hear), the moment a runner crosses the finish line of a marathon and feels the smooth satin ribbon of the finisher’s medal sliding against his or her salty neck, the pain and thoughts of where the f*** is the finish line slip away, to be recalled later only in bits and pieces, until one day, years after, he or she might think about that marathon and remember, yeah, that one was really hard.

In fact, by the time I’ve collected my medal, my bottle of water, my banana/bagel/cookie/whatever, and reached the end of the finishers’ chute, I’m often already planning my next marathon. New moms probably aren’t quite there so soon, but somehow the anguish of labor and childbirth must fade from memory in order for anyone to even consider having more than one child. Right?

It’s barely been a week since I finished the Austin Marathon last Sunday. It was easily one of the toughest courses I have ever run at any race- and though I remember it being difficult, the memories of pain and wanting to quit is fading quickly. I had run Austin in 2006, and while running a marathon is a challenge in its own right, I didn’t remember the course being particularly difficult. In fact, the thought of a difficult course never crossed my mind when I signed up to run Austin again this year, until M. and I saw a feature article about the race in the January issue of Runner’s World. Though I don’t remember the exact description of the race course, I do recall the words “challenging” and “hilly”. Evidently, the course had changed in the last eight years.

Here we go again, I thought. Poor planning on my part. Last summer, it was going from training at sea level to a race in Mexico City at 7,900 feet. This time, it would be training in the pancake-flat Rio Grande Valley with not a single hill (this is no exaggeration) anywhere to running a “challenging” and “hilly” race. With visions of a personal best time slipping away, I decided just to give the race my best effort, no matter what the course looked (or felt) like.

We arrived in Austin the Friday before the Sunday-morning event. We stayed with my dear friend and world class swimmer, Katy, and her family (the same Katy for whom I crewed during her English Channel swim in 2012). We spent the day before the race leisurely picking up our packets, perusing the race expo, relaxing, snacking, and planning our breakfast and transportation for the next morning. We even got a light run in, with some strides, to get our legs loosened up. I felt great. In the evening, we were fortunate enough to spend some time with a good friend of mine from college and her family. It was a great day. Still, thoughts of “challenging” and “hilly” were lurking in my mind. Katy had even offered to drive the course so we could see it. In the end, we didn’t, and after running the race, I knew we had made the right decision. Sometimes it’s just better not to know what you don’t know.

On Sunday morning, we got up on time, had breakfast, and got dressed. Katy drove us downtown to the race start. We dropped off our gear bag with dry clothes for after the race, stood in line for the port-a-potty, and made our way to the start. It was the perfect pre-race morning. No rushing, no getting lost on the way to the race, no hassle with trying to find parking, and no stress. The only thing bugging me were thoughts of “challenging” and “hilly”.

The race start was crowded, as the 11,000 half marathon runners and 4,000 full marathon runners were to start and run the first 10.8 miles together on the same course. Then the race course split, sending the half marathoners back downtown for the finish and the rest of us poor saps out for 15 more miles.

We decided to line up at the back of the 3:40 marathon pace group area, not so much because we thought we would run at that pace, but because we had run enough races to know that when it was as crowded as it was in Austin, the first mile would be slow simply because there were so many people. M. and I had decided not to run together this time; rather, we’d each run our own race (he was running the half marathon) and meet at the finish.

Following the national anthem and wheelchair start, the start gun sounded promptly at 7:00 am, just as the sun was coming up. The first couple of miles weren’t so bad. Although it was crowded, I didn’t have to do nearly as much weaving as I’d expected. A good thing, because weaving around people wastes a lot of energy. I saw M. a couple of times during the first three or four miles. He was smiling and running strongly.

Early on in the race, I noticed that my Garmin was not in sync with the mile markers. I was trying to run the tangents as well as I could, but each time my Garmin beeped that another mile had gone by, I was still 0.2 miles from the mile marker. I heard other people’s watches beeping along with mine, so I tried not to worry about it too much.

For the first 10 miles, the course ranged from gentle uphill to flat to gentle downhill. Nothing too bad, as far as I could tell. I was running a good pace (for me, anyway): about 8:25 per mile, with some miles closer to 8:10. I felt strong, and reached mile ten in about one hour, 24 minutes. I saw Katy and her friends at mile six, which was a great little boost.

Once we reached the marathon and half marathon split, I looked ahead and briefly considered turning along with the half marathoners. I did not like what I saw: up, up, and more up.

And so it was, up, up and more up for the next eight miles. Some of the ups were steeper than others, and though there were pockets of downhill, they were just steep and short enough to bug my knees a little and not allow much time for recovery before the next ascent. At mile 12, I stopped in the port-a-potty for about 30 seconds, and when I came out, the 3:45 pace group was just passing me. Just let them go, I thought. From then on, my goal was just to hang on to my pace for as long as I could, though I could see it getting a little slower with each mile.

By the time I reached mile 17, I calculated that even if I ran ten-minute miles for the rest of the course, I could still have a chance at finishing under four hours. I kept this thought in my mind as I approached each mile. And then I remembered that my Garmin was 0.2 miles ahead of the mile markers, so my calculations weren’t quite accurate. Still, I decided to aim for a sub-4:00 finish time.

Katy had mentioned that she would try to be at mile 19, but I didn’t see her there. In retrospect, I am glad, because it may have been too tempting to call it a day and hop in her car (though I know she wouldn’t have let me). Instead, I saw her at mile 22, and no way was I going to give up at that point.

I felt like I was hanging on for dear life in those last miles, trying not to let my pace go above 10:00 per mile. I ended up with one 10:00 mile and one at 9:59; the rest were safely under the 10:00 mark.

The steepest of all the hills came at mile 25.8. It was short, but cruel nonetheless. It took us toward the Texas State Capitol, behind which was the finish line. As I picked up the pace and ran what I had left toward the finish, I heard M. cheering for me. I waved to him and tried to smile. A few seconds later, I crossed the finish line, just a few strides ahead of two men dressed as Spiderman and Captain America. My official time was 3:58:29, with my Garmin showing that I’d run 26.45 miles. I’d made it under four hours, and with my fourth fastest time, as it turns out. Better still, it was five minutes faster than my previous Austin Marathon time eight years earlier and about 15 miles’ worth of hills flatter. I was proud.

I received my finisher’s medal and made my way through the chute. I wasn’t feeling so great. I felt dizzy and weak. M. Katy, and Katy’s friend found me and helped me get rid of the dizziness with some salt and sugar (otherwise known as chips and a Coke). Then Katy got her car and picked us up to go home.

While in the car, M. and I exchanged race experiences. He had run his best half marathon ever, finishing in 1:53:12. I was so proud of him. We talked about the people we saw along the way, the bands, the signs we saw, and of course, the hills.

By the time we’d arrived home, I was feeling pretty content. I could honestly say that I’d given the race everything I’d had. I couldn’t think of a single part when I felt like I could have gone faster or hadn’t pushed enough. This was also only the second marathon I’d run in which I hadn’t walked a single step.

Reflecting on the race a week later, I can see the areas that I need to work on to build strength and speed in order to get that personal best that I keep chasing. I can also see the areas in which I can improve my mental toughness so that the next time I read the words “challenging” and “hilly” in a race description, I won’t get so anxious.

If you’d asked me at mile 18 last Sunday if I’d ever run another marathon, I might have said never. But now? That pain is behind me, long forgotten, sort of like that new mom holding her newborn, (hopefully) not thinking about the pain she went through to bring her baby into the world.

Marathon #18, I’m coming for you.

Thank you for reading!

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