Tuesday, May 22, 2012

HoJo and Heartbreak--Julie's Pocono Marathon Run for the Red Race Report

Marathons are like childbirth--agonizing pain, followed by a fabulous reward that completely overshadows the agony, and, as a result, serial marathoners willingly repeat the whole experience, while wondering, "How the hell did I end up here again?" I asked myself that same question on Sunday morning while sweating along a two-lane highway during the Pocono Marathon Run for the Red, just four weeks after running the hottest Boston Marathon in recent history.

I am honestly not sure what led me to pay top dollar to stay at the finest Howard Johnson in the Poconos last weekend in exchange for the opportunity to run 26.2 miles in hot-but-not-as-hot-as-Boston temperatures in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, other than my constant quest to run the marathon of my life. 
Like so many of my other psychotic runner friends, I am constantly setting new goals for myself, and, as I mentioned in my Boston Race Report, my running bucket list included a sub-3:20 marathon before I hit the big 4-0. My bucket list did not include running my fifth Boston Marathon with a Chilly Towel tied around my neck and ice shoved down my pants, so about three days post-Boston, I found myself clicking the "register" button on the Run for the Red website, which described the race as one of the fastest courses out there. Holy crap--I'd never run two marathons in one season, let alone in one month.

Luckily, many of my psychotic running buddies had run two (or more) marathons in four weeks, so I sought their advice and devised a post-Boston recovery and pre-Poconos taper plan to get me to the Poconos start line with fresh legs for racing. Although my Boston recovery was not as quick as I had hoped, I managed to squeeze in a couple of longer runs and a few sharpening speed workouts, including surpisingly winning first female at a local 5K, prior to tapering for race day. Unfortunately, once again, the forecast for race day was less than ideal--hot and sunny, and, I must admit, I seriously thought about throwing in the (Chilly) towel, as I really had no desire to run another sub-par hot marathon again. Eventually, after much obsessive pondering, I made the decision to give it a shot, packed a bag, said goodbye to the family (who thought I was crazy), and headed up for a night at the HoJo in Stroudsburg.

Race morning was unusually low-key.  After consuming a breakfast of Quaker oatmeal and berries while watching an excellent Three's Company rerun in the hotel lobby, I boarded a school bus from the local Stroudsburg Mall and headed up the start line at Pocono West High School. Sitting in the high school, I noticed how many people were wearing Boston attire, and, like me, were looking for a post-Boston redemption race. Although the temperatures at the start were certainly not cool, the conditions were WAY better than Boston, and maybe, just maybe, I could achieve a personal best on this fast net downhill course. I started out running a 7:30-7:40 pace range and felt strong and in control. I stuck to my fueling plan, and drank 8 ounces of Gatorade every two miles, while dumping two cups of water over my head to keep cool. Every four miles, I ingested 3-4 Clif Shot Blocks and every hour, I took a salt tab. The hills were steep, so I was careful to stay in control and not go too fast on the downhills. The shade was typically on the right side of the course, which, unfortunately, was slanted, so I found myself debating whether to opt for shade and slant or sun and smooth. I consistently selected the former to ensure that I remained as cool as possible. As the miles ticked by, I grew more excited as I continued to feel strong and the possibility of hitting a 3:15-3:18 finish time was well within my reach. As I passed through the mile 20 water stop with relative ease, I took my last shot block and buckled down for the remaining hot 10K.

While climbing the final hill at mile 22, I felt a sharp pain near the outside of my left knee. The pain continued and suddenly, I couldn't run. My leg felt like spaghetti, and I immediately stopped to massage the area. I was calm and hopeful that this was not my ITB, which had never been a problem for me until this moment, but the coach in me knew that this was likely the case. I tried to run again, made it to the next water stop and just collapsed on one of the cots behind the water stop. I was stunned. Ironically, this was my thirteenth marathon, and as I furiously massaged the area in a futile attempt to eradicate the pain, I could not help but think once again, "How the hell did I end up here?"

The terrific race volunteers surrounded me and asked me if I needed medical transport. I refused, tried again, walked back to them, and with tears streaming down my face, accepted the offer for a van to retrieve me and take me to the finish area at Stroudsburg High School. I took off my timing chip, waited another minute and quickly realized that, given the narrow roads and the traffic situation, I could walk to the finish and at least finish my unlucky thirteenth marathon faster than the time it would take for me to be retrieved by a vehicle. As I hobbled through the town for the next 3 miles, I could not help but think about my first marathon in 2000 and how determined I was to finish in under four hours, and how excited I was to finish in 3:59:56. I heard the voices of the runners passing me, many of whom would finish in that exact time, and I listened to their breathing, their excitement, and observed their pride as they realized that they would likely break four hours. Ironically, I limped across the finish line in approximately four hours feeling beaten down, disappointed, and frustrated.

I found my friends, who led me to a torturous bucket full of ice, which was exactly what I needed for my ITB. As I submerged my lower body into the ice bath, I clenched my buddy's hand and thought about the season, the crazy training, my own goals, and to be cheesy, Kelly Clarkson. It's true-what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and, this experience, along with my previous twelve marathons are constant reminders that the marathon is a different animal that often presents unpredictable challenges, regardless of your knowledge and experience. In this case, I learned the hard way that, unlike many of my running peers, my body is not capable of running two marathons within four weeks.  

And, as I write this 24 hours later after a delicious post-race meal at Sheetz off the Turnpike, I have perspective once again. It's just another race, and I am damn lucky to have the choice and the opportunity to run. Some days are better than others, and what makes running challenging and analogous to our own lives is that while it's constant, it's also unpredictable, challenging, rewarding, and, in this case, character-building.  


I would like to thank my sponsors of this year's race, Howard Johnson's and Sheetz.  Special shout-out to the Run for the Red race volunteers, who could not have been more kind and understanding. Congratulations to my MCRRC peeps who ran outstanding races, and to all of those who ran for the Red on Sunday. See you in Boston next year!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I was in tears reading this! Way to finish, and this just sealed the deal for my fall lineup! :-)