Setting a challenging race goal is fun and motivating especially when the race date is in the distant future. As race day approaches, sometimes a strange phenomenon takes place—that same goal becomes more scary than motivational. Thoughts about the possibility of failing to reach the goal rear their ugly head. Since most athletes don’t take failure lightly, the temptation sneaks in to choose a more conservative goal for the race. At times this is the right decision depending on the person’s race experience, the type of event, and the race day conditions; at other times this last minute shift in plans would lead to disappointment even if the modified goal is achieved.
Through the months my training went well. I stayed healthy and injury free. I posted a half marathon time and completed long runs that indicated I was on track to hit my goal. All was well until about a week before the race when I started thinking that holding a 7:49 pace for 26.2 miles was more than a tad intimidating. I checked the race results from the previous year, and realized that there was a good chance I would win my age group if I ran a 3:35, and the 8:12 pace to achieve that time goal seemed much more palatable (finding out at the 20 mile marker that you have gone out too hard makes for an extremely unpleasant final 10k in a marathon). So I fretted about it. I could go out at a conservative pace and most likely win my age group and be more guaranteed of a dignified final 10k or I could stick to my original goal and run the risk of blowing up and posting a much slower finishing time. Two days before the race, I told my husband that I was going for the 3:25. I had already completed marathons and had even been the first woman overall at the Sri Chimnoy Marathon in New York many years ago. Completing a marathon and even winning a marathon were goals that already had been achieved. Why settle when what I really wanted to do was to post a 3:25 at age 47 at my first marathon attempt in more than two decades? Easy? No. Achievable? Possibly, if race day conditions were good and I had a good race.
On Sunday (race morning) at 4:30 AM, I boarded the bus from the host hotel to the race venue. Temps were in the upper 60s and it was really dark out. I was feeling a little nervous, but good, as I munched on an NRG bar, drank my coffee, and chatted with the guy sitting next to me on the bus. As I stepped off the bus at the race venue, the first thing I noticed was the strong wind blowing across the race venue and was glad that despite the balmy temps I had brought a windbreaker to wear while waiting for the race to start. So I found a sheltered spot and hung out chatting with another woman participant while waiting for the right time to start doing some active warm ups and a short jog. After my warm up, I felt ready and lined up with the 3:25 pace group within my sights. I admit that I did look over my shoulder a few times at the 3:35 pace group and considered heading back there, but I stood my ground. I had done the training. I had traveled this far. I was going for it.
The race started to the sound of a rocket taking off. This was, after all, the Space Coast Marathon. I settled into my pace and felt awesome, even like I was holding back a bit. Eventually a guy who was probably in his twenties settled in beside me; it was nice to have someone keeping pace with me. Around the three mile mark, I was surprised when it started to rain--a steady rain that felt refreshing given the warm, humid morning temps. Ah maybe the weather was going to cooperate. Well, the rain stopped about ten minutes later. It went back to feeling like I was running in the steam room at the Y. But the scenery was gorgeous as we ran along the coast with a nice tailwind and I was feeling just fine as I kept the 3:25 pace group in my sights. As I approached the six mile marker, a runner on his way back from the 10k turnaround point yelled that I was the fifth place woman. While I welcomed the news, I knew it was still early in the race. About a minute later, a different returning runner called out that I was the tenth woman. I turned to the guy next to me and said, “I hope nobody else gives me an update. I just lost five places and I don’t recall any women passing me.” He told me not to worry that he would yell, “Shut the #%@& up” if anyone else tried to give me an update. I liked my new found running partner.
After the first turnaround at the 10k point, it became readily apparent how strong the wind was blowing. It was coming head on. The running got noticeably tougher. My running buddy slowed down around the 10 mile mark, and I was bummed to lose the companionship. It was hot, humid, and windy. There was no shelter and nobody to run with. Still I kept my pace steady and tried to stay focused. By the halfway mark, I knew that the heat and the wind were taking a toll on me. So I eased my pace a bit, still hoping to salvage a 3:30 race.
That didn’t happen. My performance spiraled downward as the miles slowly went past. By the 18 mile mark, I bargained with myself that I could walk through the aid stations. By mile 22, those walks through the aid stations were getting lengthier, more like I was perusing a buffet than running a race. Somewhere around the 23 mile mark, the 3:35 pace group passed me. Ugh! With two miles to go, I was hurting. My legs were trashed, and I had to resort to more walking and much less running. My focus had switched to trying to walk faster than the people on the course who were essentially walking the half marathon that was going on concurrently on the second half of the marathon course. It wasn’t pretty, but it was what it was. Finally, I crossed the finish line in 3:49, a personal worst at the marathon distance. I got second in my age group, a few minutes behind first place. Disappointed and frustrated that I hadn’t run a smarter race, I fueled up on the pancake breakfast at the race venue and took the bus back to the host hotel.
As we athletes tend to do postrace, I thought back on my race and my race strategy. At first, I was still kicking myself for ‘blowing’ a win. But after a shower and a little more food, I started to feel much better about my race. I smiled at my husband and kids and said, “You know. I’m glad that I went for it”.