A couple of days before I left for the Philadelphia Marathon, my mom sent me a card. The outside of it was a black-and-white photo of a little girl, climbing up a rock, with a wide smile as she teetered to gain her balance at the top. It said, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails.”
How apropos, in so many ways. With blustery cold weather clinging to the East Coast, I knew I was facing a frigid marathon experience. I also knew that if I’ve learned nothing else during the last six months, I have finely tuned my ability to adjust my sails.
So, I did it. I qualified for the Boston Marathon on Sunday by finishing the Philadelphia Marathon in 3:30:45. That was 10 minutes faster than the qualifying time and 11 minutes faster than my previous best marathon time.
It was perhaps the best race weekend of my life. Much like the 29 weeks of training that led me there, it was as near-perfect as a marathon experience can be. Was it luck? I have to believe it was more than that. I have to believe that when you work so hard for so long with a laser-like focus on your dreams, surround yourself with family and friends who care and genuinely support you, and have 100 percent trust in the person who is patiently, intelligently, and positively guiding you toward your goals, that the “luck” is really just the result of all the ingredients you’ve carefully, painstakingly mixed together.
Some might say that it was “lucky” that I never was sick or injured throughout my training, which began in mid-May. I see it a different way. I don’t think it was “luck” that changed my eating habits for the better or taught me how to listen to my body, so that I didn’t push through the little twinges and sniffles that could’ve blown up into full-fledged health problems. I don’t think it’s chance that I learned how to deal with real pain during track workouts, or taught my legs exactly what marathon pace feels like week after week on long runs that were continually besieged by horrible weather conditions. It wasn’t good fortune that led me to go to bed early or plan ahead to fit in a 60+-mile training week with my work and travel schedule, all while still being a good friend, daughter, and journalist. It wasn't a fluke that I maintained a positive attitude, even when a workout didn't go according to plan or my legs felt heavy and sluggish.
So you’ll forgive me when I confess that as I approached the starting area in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, I felt a lump in my throat. Quite frankly, it shocked me. I have, after all, run eight marathons now and have never been emotional about any of them. But as soon as I saw some volunteers hoisting the finish line onto the scaffolding as I approached the Art Museum, my eyes welled up. I knew that the next time I saw it, it wouldn’t be just a finish line – it would mark a new beginning in my running life.
The previous 24 hours were the most relaxed I’ve ever had before a race. I spent more time laughing with my friends about ridiculous things than I did thinking about the 26.2 miles ahead of me. Michelle and Suzanne took such good care of me, from driving to Philly to braving the freezing temperatures on race morning to scream at me, I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done without them. Our dinner on Saturday night with KC and Josh was not only delicious, but it was low key and fun, which was just what I needed. My final chat with Mike left me feeling inspired and upbeat, as well as calm and confident. And that Penn State win over Michigan State? Despite the Arctic temperatures, that clearly left me California dreamin’ :).
The race itself may be anticlimactic as far as good stories go. It went almost exactly as I had planned. I dressed in layers, which I shed as my body warmed up. I did exactly what I had practiced over and over and over again in training: starting out at 8 minute per mile pace and never going faster than 7:45. The only hitches thrown into the equation were icy water stops that doubled as ice-skating rinks, mile markers that were completely off in the first 6 miles or so, and a severe aversion to taking my second gel later in the marathon. Yes, I ran my best time fueled by nothing more than one gel at mile 9 and water every 3 to 5 miles. I knew I’d pay the price for that, and I did. But I didn’t feel the pain and fatigue in earnest until about mile 24, when I knew it was just a matter of gutting it out, which I had much experience doing over the past six months.
The second half of the marathon was by far my favorite. I had such amazing support—I felt as though I was just being handed off from friend to friend all the way through to the finish line, starting with Suzanne and Michelle at the halfway point, Megan at 14, Sarah at mile 19, KC at mile 20, Josh at mile 24, catching Nathan at mile 25, and crossing the finish line with him. And while I could feel the hurt you’d expect after mile 21, I can’t say I ever experienced anything unbearable, like last year. I was happy to see the finish line and knew that I didn’t have much left in me, but in retrospect it was by far the strongest I’ve ever felt throughout an entire marathon. There’s more in the tank to explore, and that’s the exciting lesson this race taught me.
So while I have no idea how life will unfold otherwise between now and April, I do know that it will include another marathon training cycle—this time, for the Boston Marathon. I go into that knowing that I’m capable of more than I ever realized and that if I do it right, there won't be any surprises on race day. After all, when you know how to work hard and adjust your sails, luck is always on your side.