by Allison Macsas (re-posted from her blog)
Last weekend I toed the line of the US Marathon Championships in Minneapolis, ready to race 26.2 for the first time in two years. First and foremost, I was there to run sub-2:43 to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials, a goal that I made known. I had other hopes too: I wanted to break 2:40, and I wanted to finish top 10. The combination of two years away from the distance, a very different sort of training scenario and the fact that I’ve never finished better than 24th at a US Champs race gave rise to a healthy dose of self-doubt and caused me to keep those thoughts largely under wraps.
In the end, the race was a big, big success, the result of a long journey and some new ways of doing things. Here is the story:
The 2012 Olympic Trials was the best race of my short-thus-far marathoning career. I had qualified with a 2:44, then had a spectacular day in Houston, running 2:40:47. Before that race, I had declared that it would be my grand finale, the end of professional racing and of my spot with RogueAC. I was too burnt out, too tired of balancing huge training weeks with full time work and coaching on top of that. Though I did leave the team, I knew the moment that I crossed the finish line that I wanted to be back in 2016; I just needed some time away.
Against my better judgment, I raced Philly that fall and fell apart at the end, the result of rookie mistakes and a summer of unenthused training. I really stepped away from road racing then; 2013 was all about enjoying my runs with Team Rogue, training for and running the Leadville 100 and then being injured (hello spin class!) after said race. I’ve run some lowkey half marathons since then, and knew I was really back and excited again when I hit a new PR in Vancouver this past May. I was ready to think about the marathon again. I chose Twin Cities mostly because of timing; I leave for Africa at the end of October and will be guiding trips, so I needed the race to be done beforehand. Plus, Minneapolis tends to be cold, and cold is my secret weapon.
My training was very, very different from anything I’ve done before. As you may know, I moved into an RV at the beginning of June and took off for a summer of working remotely, guiding trips and escaping the oppressive Austin heat. Steve Sisson, who has coached me for the better part of the past four years, agreed to write a loose schedule for me and serve as a sounding board as the summer progressed.
The workouts themselves were not too different from what I’ve done before. What was different was that I rarely had marked routes, so other than a few track workouts and one big race prep a month out, everything was effort-based with no hard numbers to analyze. Another big change was that I ran trail, a LOT. Like, 5 days a week, if not more. Trail running is something I’ve never been able to love in Austin for a variety of reasons (takes too long, requires driving to a trail head, bad falls on rocks, etc), but out on the road in the beautiful American West, I was HOOKED. While I felt sure that these trails were making me strong, and definitely more resilient, I couldn’t help but wonder if the drastically slower pace would hurt me on the road. But when I saw that I was running some of the fastest track workouts of my life, alone, at altitude, I stopped worrying so much.
Another change? Running late morning and midday. I’ve always run early mornings, and always believed that I feel best at that time, but I quickly found that with a flexible schedule and cool weather, 4-something (and 5-something) alarms were history. Sleeping 8-9 hours every night was a game-changer when it came to recovery and mood and mental focus.
I also had no routine to speak of, as we moved so frequently. Between June and the end of September, I found myself running in Angel Fire NM, Durango & Colorado Springs CO, Moab UT, Ely NV, Soda Springs, Truckee & Lake Tahoe CA, Crater Lake, Bend OR, Kelso, Seattle & Bellingham WA, Vancouver, Coeur d’alene ID, Whitefish, Bozeman & West Yellowstone MO, Jackson WY and Denton TX. I rarely knew exactly where I’d be going when I walked out the door, a big change for someone that’s always been a bit of a control freak about when and where I get my mileage in. And of course, I didn’t have a crew, or anyone at all, to train with. I only had myself to meet for workouts, and only had myself to push through the hard parts.
All in all, I felt strong and fit going into the race, but there were a lot of unknowns in play.
We’d been staying at my dad’s house for a few days, and had the RV parked outside. On Thursday I went out to begin packing, starting with the most important part: shoes. I’ve been supported by Skechers Performance since the spring, and had a lightly used pair of GoRuns that I’d been saving for the race. I opened the closet and found…one shoe. So I dug everything out of the closet, then from the storage compartment under the bed, then from the storage compartments under the RV; I found tons of running shoes, but not THE shoe. Eventually I had to accept that it was gone and that my only option was to race in a very old, very trashed pair of the same shoes. I threw them into the bag, and crossed my fingers.
I had an easy flight in from Dallas, and was so happy to be back to fall colors and cold, gray weather. That afternoon I met up with former teammates Scott and Jeff for a (fast!) shakeout run followed by dinner with their families. Saturday was all about killing time. A morning run with the guys and Alli, organizing water bottles for drop off and one of those elite technical meetings that never fail to put butterflies in my stomach as I size up the field of very fast-looking people. The afternoon dragged; I finished a book, organized my gear, and even did some design work to pass the time and take my mind off of the race.
Finally it was late enough for dinner. We all met up with Steve and Ruth and headed to a brewery where I spent the whole time fighting nerves and half-wishing I was one of the relaxed, beer-drinking spectators. But, overall the energy was good and the nerves weren’t overwhelming; I was just ready to go get this thing done. Finally it was an acceptable bedtime, and go time was near.
The alarm went off at 5. My roommate and I made our respective breakfasts, grabbed coffee from upstairs, got dressed and boarded a bus at 6. We were taken to a hotel next to the start where we had a big ,warm ballroom to wait in. I wished Alli good luck in the 10 miler, then sat on the floor with Scott and Jeff and continued to kill time. Eventually the three of us went outside to run a few laps around the building; It was very cold and overcast, and I wondered if I should wear arm warmers before remembering that I didn’t bring any. A singlet, gloves and very old shoes it was! At 7:30 we began the procession to the starting line; by the time we got there it was time to strip down, put our bags in the back of a truck and line up. I didn’t get a chance to do any of my normal warm up drills, but for some reason it didn’t bother me. I did one stride and felt fast. I was ready to go.
The gun went off, and the crowd surged forward. I knew the pace would be fast at first, due to starting line excitement and the cold temps, but I restrained any urge to go after the flood of girls ahead of me – it’s a long race. I wanted to go out around 6:10-15, settle in at 6:05 and try to get faster at the end. The first mile came in at 5:58; too fast, but not dangerously so. I backed off a bit, relaxed, settled in.
Somewhere within the second mile I found myself next to Ruth Perkins, whom I’d met at a half marathon in Seattle last month. We knew that we had similar goals, and she suggested that we work together. I always find myself alone in races, to the point that I’m convinced I must be subconsciously separating myself on purpose. The only time I’ve ever teamed up and worked with others in a race was at the Trials, and that was of course my best race, so I agreed to give it a shot.
We decided that we’d take turns leading a mile at a time, and quickly settled into a rhythm. She was running a bit more aggressively than I’d planned to do so early on, hitting 6-6:05 for her miles, and I was running a bit more conservatively than she had been planning on, hitting 6:05-10 for mine. Our averages were coming out perfectly though, the rhythm was good and it was so nice to have someone to trade encouraging words with.
The miles were flying by; I saw Steve a number of times, and around mile 10 he told me that Ruth and I were in 10th and 11th place. Really?!? I felt like a ton of girls had gone out ahead, and I really didn’t believe that I could be that far up in the field. It provided a good boost, and we kept on. A number of guys came in and out of our little group as we went along. At times it was a bit too much of a crowd for me and I had to fight the urge to just break away and claim some space, as I knew that it was helping to run with others.
Somewhere after the half marathon point we came up on another woman and passed her; now we were 9th and 10th. The pace remained steady, we were able to grab our water bottles with no issues and I felt very, very strong as we approached and passed mile 18, then 19. I knew there was a three mile climb ahead, but I wasn’t worried. Mile 20 came along, and the climbing soon began. It wasn’t steep at all, but it was certainly noticeable. We passed more girls, some of them passed back; I switched between 6th and 9th place quite a bit, but was able to continue pushing and run more aggressively than I’d expected.
I saw Steve a final time at mile 22, and that was about the time that the marathon decided to show me who was boss. That too-familiar feeling of numb legs and desperate thoughts set in; it was like a switch flipped and I instantly went from heroic strength to wondering if I could make it to the 23 mile marker. I’d lost contact with Ruth – she was behind me, but I didn’t know where – and any concept of paces or splits. I took a deep breath and told myself to calm down, it’s just running, keep going. One foot in front of the other.
Scott had made it sound like we’d hit mile 23 and then it’d be a downhill homestretch, but that was far from reality. There were some down hill stretches for sure, but also an uphill to go with each one! I silently cursed the climbs, the happy comfortable people on the sidelines and Scott for those false hopes, but kept moving forward. Two girls blew by me, putting me into 8th place. I sternly told myself not to lose a top-10 finish. The Sharpie splits on my arm were still visible, and as I passed mile 25 I knew that I had my qualifier in the bag by at least 2 minutes, though I wasn’t so hopeful for a PR anymore. 1.2 miles seemed almost insurmountable at that point, but I’ve been there before and always made it through; it was time to shut my brain off and go.
At mile 26, I saw 2:38:xx on my watch. My brain had truly shut off, and I could not figure out for the life of me how long it would take to run .2 miles. 30 seconds? 3 minutes? No clue. Luckily, the finish line was visible – and down a hill – at this point, and the sight of a finish line can bring out superpowers. I ran as hard as I possibly could, half convinced that I was going to fall onto my face. Soon the finish line clock was visible, 2:39:50 and ticking forward quickly. I gave one last push, and saw 2:39:58 as I crossed, convinced from past experience that the official time would be several seconds slower.
I stumbled through the chute, hardly believing that it was over, and luckily had a volunteer lead me to the elite tent where I first found Scott’s dad, then Scott himself and Alli. I learned that Scott nabbed a top 10 finish, Alli won the 10 miler and then, via a text from Steve, that I’d done it! 2:39:58 officially!! Sub-2:40, 8th place at a US Champs race and of course, an Olympic Trials qualifier.
I looked for Ruth but never saw her, and worried that she’d fallen apart at the end. But, I soon saw that the exact opposite had happened – she finished just four seconds behind me, in 9th place with a nearly 4 minute PR! Teamwork indeed.
The rest of the day was pure, exhausted contentment. We veeeery slowly shuffled a mile back to the hotel, where I showered, packed up and went through a deluge of congratulatory texts and Facebook posts. I marveled at how my feet were in near-perfect shape despite the pair of old, tread-less shoes that I’d raced in. Skechers FTW! I joined a big group of Austinites for brunch nearby, where I had little interest in food but lots of interest in beer. Although we were the only people there, the service was mind-blowingly slow and I seriously contemplated lying on the floor for a short nap.
After that it was already time to move to the Happy Gnome, where a Rogue-wide party was happening. It was wonderful: food, drink and a ton of great people that I hadn’t seen since May, all of whom had fantastic races! Eventually I had to leave for the airport where I boarded one of the most uncomfortable flights ever (note to self: never, ever leave the same day you race), but not even that could wipe the smile off of my face.
Could I have finished stronger and faster? I think so, had I stuck to my start-conservatively plan a bit better. Do I regret how I ran? Absolutely not. My big goal and my secret goals were all accomplished and I now know for sure that I’m back in the game. I know that taking two years away was a smart decision. I know that doing things differently can yield great results. I know that not only is it possible to mix competitive running with this unstructured, nomadic lifestyle, but that I’m actually better for it. Most importantly, I’m excited about all of it, and excitement is key to success, whatever the endeavor.