Race day can be full of surprises, so it’s best not to assume the final outcome.

13 Dec

I truly believe in practicing what I preach as a personal trainer and distance running conditioning specialist. When I’m training for a race or series of races, I design a training plan and follow it. With that said, just because someone follows a training plan, doesn’t mean all the training runs will go well. In fact, I’ve never had a training season where every long training run went well. I usually have one or two long runs that go poorly, but that’s not uncommon during a 16 week training season where you’re running three to four times per week.

While training for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k (31 miles) in Kansas City, most of my long training runs were disappointing. This was a new experience for me.

One of the things I stress with clients is that you must train with the products the race is serving on the race course. This particular race was serving products I had never tried. I spent eight weeks trying to get my body to accept the new products, but it wouldn’t. The products made me ill and the runs were unpleasant because of that. I struggled due to a lack of fuel and my body “hitting the wall” causing me to walk some or most of the mileage during the long training runs. While the runs didn’t go well, I sucked it up and finished every run and completed the mileage according to the plan no matter how long it took.

By the time I realized I wouldn’t be able to force my body to tolerate the products, I had accumulated a lot of knowledge. The main thing I knew was the only thing I’d be able to drink on this particular race course was water. So I had to plan accordingly by carrying my own fueling products…products I’d used successfully in the past.

When training for an ultra marathon, or a series of ultra marathons in my case, the most important thing is spending a lot of time on your feet. So, training runs with walking mileage have some benefits. And while I wasn’t happy with how the runs went, I was happy that I completed all the mileage for each training run.

I arrived in Kansas City a few days before the race. K.C. is my home town and my dad was nervous about my running this race. I had been in K.C. four weeks earlier for his birthday and we’d driven the course. All he could say the entire time was, “This is all uphill. I’m exhausted driving this. How in the world are you going to run this?” I explained to my father that while my training hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped, I was ready and had trained adequately for the race. I was prepared, and I would finish within the time limit.

The night before the race, I told my dad I’d be up at 2am to eat breakfast but I’d be very quiet so I wouldn’t wake him, my mom or the dog. He asked me if I was taking a cell phone with me on the course. I told him there was no need. I knew why he was asking this. I explained to him that if something horrible happened to me, and that was highly unlikely, he is the emergency contact listed on the back of my race bib, so the race would call him since I’d be in no condition to do so. Regardless of my logic, my father kept insisting that I take a phone. His next comment was, “What if you get tired or your foot starts hurting and you don’t want to finish? Don’t you want a phone so you can call me to pick you up?” Again, I explained to him that unless they were taking me off the course in an ambulance, I’d finish. I explained that the foot injury from last year was much better and while I had some discomfort during training, it was a muscular issue and not structural. As a trainer I know when to stop and the foot was fine. I told him that I expected to finish in seven hours, based on my training runs going badly, and told him where to meet me at 2pm. Keep in mind I ran a 30 mile ultra marathon in just under six and a half hours the previous year with the foot injury only 60% healed. This year, it was 90% healed, but the training runs were so far below my expectations that I assumed a seven hour finish was what I could reasonably expect.

Race morning arrives. I get up as scheduled at 2am and eat my usual breakfast (six egg whites, a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of black coffee) and head back to bed to rest a bit at 2:15am. I never sleep the night before a race, so resting is relative. It’s more about staying off my feet and visualizing the race I hope to run before I need to get dressed and head out so my dad can drop me off near the starting line.

At 2:20am I hear this quiet knocking on my bedroom door. It’s my dad. He says, “Aren’t you supposed to be up at 2am eating breakfast?” I reply, “I already ate. Why are you up?” He says, “You were so quiet, I didn’t hear you. And I’m up because I’m racing today, and I can’t sleep!” He then asks me again, are you sure you don’t want to take a phone? I have never seen my father this nervous. This is so unlike him. So, to ease his mind, I tell him I will take a phone with me and I will call him on his cell phone when I get to mile 25 so he knows it’s time to head down to the race and pick me up. My father doesn’t leave his cell phone on, so I remind him to turn it on at 1pm since I’m hoping to finish around 2pm. He tells me he will turn it on at noon.

One of the things I regularly tell people is that some days the race course owns you and some days you own the race course. Over the years, I’ve experienced both.

I woke up on race morning feeling great and felt good at the starting line. But once the gun goes off, anything can happen between the start and finish lines.

I start with a pack of about 250 men and women who are running the 50k and we all have a bounce in our step and are filled with anticipation. I remind myself not to start too fast and to find a comfortable pace and settle into it. As I make the third turn, a young woman in her 20s asks if it’s okay if she runs with me. I tell her, absolutely! It’s always nice to have company and make new friends on the course. I ask her about her finishing goal and she tells me it’s purely to finish. I’m thinking that’s perfect. We’re probably going to run the same pace and we can hang out together for a while. As we continue on our journey, I find out her name is Maria, she’s studying to be a doctor and she’s always been a runner ever since she was a kid. With this knowledge I ask, “So, I know your goal is to finish, but do you have a goal time in mind?” She replies that she does. It’s two hours more than her slowest marathon finishing time. Again, I’m thinking I have lucked out and found a good running partner for this race. But being a former investigative reporter, I have to ask the obvious question, “What was your slowest marathon time?” She replies it was four hours. Holy smoke! I know I’m pacing too fast if she’s running with me. But I feel good at that pace, so I stick with it knowing I will adjust my pace as necessary. About three miles into the race, Maria says, “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to walk to that stop light. I have some leg cramps.” I explain to her that if I start taking walk breaks this soon in the race, I’ll be in trouble. So we agree that she’ll work out her cramp and catch up to me since she’s the fast runner and I’m not. That’s exactly what happened and we continued on together for a few more miles. She got another cramp. Same thing, she stopped to walk it out and caught up to me. The third time, that didn’t happen. I never saw Maria again, but by running with her, I realized I probably started out too fast, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. So, my strategy is to listen to my body and do what it tells me. That’s always a good strategy.

Since Kansas City is my home town, we ran through some very special, sentimental parts of the city that hold lots of fond childhood memories for me. Several of the places we ran by were places my grandmother and I used to go when I was young. My family lost her two years ago, but I felt her spirit with me the entire race.

We also ran through some spectacular places I had never seen. I got caught up in the beauty of the course includimg a bridge over the river, stairs that take you down to a path beside the river and this overlook where you can see for miles. As I got caught up in the beauty of the course, I really wasn’t paying attention to my pace. I was paying attention to my body and it said it felt pretty good. I took some walk breaks to conserve energy up some steep hills where head winds were beating us up, but for the most part, I was feeling good. Next thing I know, I see a sign that says I’m at mile 20. I look at my GPS watch and realize I’m way ahead of my expected pace. I’d been running for three and a half hours. Doing the math in my head, I realized I might finish in closer to six hours than seven hours and was glad I brought my phone. Father knows best, as they say! But I also knew that, as runners say, the wheels can fall off at any time during a race and I still had 11 miles to go.

When I saw the mile marker and water stop at mile 25 I looked at my watch. It was only 11:40am. My father wasn’t going to turn his phone on before noon. I picked up my phone and called him. My voice mail said, “Dad, it’s 11:40am and I’m at mile 25. I’m way ahead of schedule. When you get this message at noon, you need to get in the car and head down to the finish line to meet me. I’ll see you soon.”

The last six miles were the most exciting. As I looked at my running watch, I realized I really could break six hours. Prior to this point, I’d stopped at almost all the aid stations to get water and make sure I was staying well hydrated. But once I left the station at mile 25, I was a woman on a mission and there would be no stopping or stopping me.

As I rounded the final turn I passed the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, one of my favorite places in K.C. and a place where my grandmother and I spent many afternoons when I was a child. I felt my heart and soul fill with joy and all I could think is that she would have loved this moment and seeing me finish this race. As I headed down the final hill, I could see the finish line. I still had some energy left, and I kicked it into high gear. I was going to break six hours. As I crossed the timing mat at the finish, all I could see was the finisher’s clock…5:52:31. Then I heard this voice shouting, “Lauren, you did fantastic. You had a great race!” It was my dad. He’d gotten the message in time and was able to see me finish the race. My father had never seen me run or race, so this was a thrilling moment for us to share. He was beaming and so was I. I’m not sure who was happier or more proud.

So what is the lesson of this experience?
In training and in racing, the road to the finish is an adventure. Sometimes the road is smooth and sometimes it’s rough. But what you have to remember in both circumstances is that just because the majority of the journey is rough, it doesn’t automatically mean that the ending will be equally difficult. Races can surprise us…in good ways and in bad ways. The key is to take one step at a time and embrace the journey. If you are prepared, stay focused and maintain a positive attitude, you’re more likely to have a rewarding outcome.

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