Thursday, October 16, 2014

Steamtown Marathon. Scranton PA. 10/12/14

Photo by Donna Sajulga-Tablos
I read somewhere how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself, at least once, in the most ancient of human conditions, facing the blind, deaf stone alone with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head. - Chris McCandless (quoting Primo Levi), as written by John Krakauer, Into the Wild.

I needed to wind down and get some sleep. I had to be up at 5:00 am.  In the room next door, someone played their electric guitar.  Who brings an amp to a hotel?  It wasn’t horribly loud but just loud enough to disrupt my sleep in a quiet room. The TV had an unfortunate volume problem where at Level 1 the volume would drown out the guitar but was much too loud to be relaxing. One click down was Level 0, which meant it was off.  So I pulled out my iPad for diversion.

During the DeMar Marathon two weeks ago, I was completely consumed with the song Society by Eddie Vedder.  As that song played in my head, it propelled me through the second half of the course, distracting me from the pain of trying to run as fast as I could. 

I found the song, hoping to feel strong again before I fell asleep. I learned it was from the sound track of a movie called Into The Wild.  Into the Wild is a film adaptation of the biography of Chris McCandless written by John Krakauer. It is the true story about Chris, a young man who graduates college and then runs away from his life, from his material possessions, and from his family. He seems to be trying to find himself and how he fits into the world. He seems to be testing his theories by teaching others he meets what he believes is the meaning of life and the key to happiness.  He changes his name to Alexander SuperTramp. He travels across the United States. He believes he will find his peace once he is able to finally live in isolation off the land in the Wild Alaskan Wilderness surrounded only by the boundless beauty of nature and what the land naturally provides.   

I watched clips from the movie until late in the night, well past the apparent bed time of the guitar player next door.  I was fascinated by the story . The quote above stuck with me the next morning. 

Photo by Donna Sajulga-Tablos

Race Pressure
For months I made Steamtown my focus. I wanted to run faster than I ever have before.  Steamtown would be my way of measuring myself as a runner and as a coach.  

I don’t like focused race training. It is emotionally exhausting. The sense of putting all eggs in one basket just screams out with the potential to be an opportunity for self-actualization or for the soul-crushing realization of personal limitations. Something as tiny as starting off just a few seconds too fast and overestimating ability could be all that is needed for me to tip the scale from extreme joy to heartache.

As a coach, I help others work towards their goals.  My runners trust me and I am confident that the runners I choose to work with are runners I am sure I can help if all things go well. I race often but not often to meet a goal.  When I do make a race the focus of my training, I want to show my runners that when I train myself with the same focused training I expect of them, that I, too, can and will see positive results if all goes well on race day. I can handle the pressure I put on myself as a runner, but I also feel the weight of the pressure I put on myself as a coach. In many ways the latter is much much greater. 

DeMar Marathon.
I feel like I got lucky. I had a great race two weeks ago, by accident. I ran the DeMar marathon because I needed one more 22+ mile Long Run. I started comfortable, feeling so good at mile 14 that I decided to push myself. I negativie split the race on the hilly second half. I finished DeMar in 3:15.  This was one of my best races.

Then a few days after DeMar,  after 1.25 miles of warm up, at 153 feet into the first 800m of my final speed session, I felt the track reach up and grab my hamstring.  My stride cut short. I hobbled. I tired to get back up to speed and it spasmed again. John called out, “Oh crap, you are serious!?”  Dave asked what I needed, what could he do to help. I said, in complete honesty, “I don’t know... this has never happened to me!” 

I jogged slowly to see if maybe it would loosened. 10 minute pace did not bother me, but just speeding up a little faster was to much. I could feel it grab. So I stopped and sat on the track. I put my cold water bottle on the tight spot. I felt overwhelmed with concern about what this meant. Dave and John did 4 repeats and I left them to finish their workout while I got myself home for ice. I decided that even if Steamtown did not workout for me, at least I had a good run at DeMar so all wasn’t lost.   

Twelve Days Later, I sat in the gym in Scranton trying to decide what to wear.  My car had ice on the windshield about 90 minutes earlier when I left the hotel to catch the bus to the start.  It as very cold at 6 am.  I was wearing capri pants, a t-shirt, arm sleeve, a hat, throw away gloves, a long sleeve throw away shirt. I knew I was over dressed, since it was now closer to 40 degrees and the air didn’t feel like it was biting my skin.  

I was glad to have brought extra clothes in my gear bag.  I changed into shorts and a singlet, kept the arm warmers and throw away gloves. Took out my sunglasses, my inhaler, 4 gels, and three small packets of iodized salt (yes, I am back experimenting with salt again, but only the iodized kind).  Ok, I was ready.

But where was Dave. I was sitting at the 3:10 sign where I said I would be. There was 15 minutes to go. I left the gym, alone, to line up after one last stop at the bathroom. I rushed to the front. I was on my own.  For months I visualized running with race with Dave nearby.  We are pretty equally matched and I thought we would at least start together.  Not today. 

Dave and I starting training together for this race after I insisted that he should actually try to run a fast marathon for once in his a life. I knew he should be able to run fast if he set his mind to do it.  His BQ time is 3:10. I wanted to try to break 3:10. I asked him to try to do it with me and we picked Steamtown. He would need close to a 20 minute PR for this. It would be hard, but not impossible. We met for speed work and long runs, getting focused and most committed to training with about 8 weeks to go. Training went well. There was some room for improvement but overall we both felt ready to give this an honest try.

The hand-cyclist were sent off and the runners are called up to the start.  I begin to walk forward wondering if I would see him along the way. I was ok with racing alone.  It could be better to start that way, since we knew it would be unlikely that we would execute the pacing in the exact same way, unless it happened naturally. 

I hear my name being called out a few times in the crowd.  With seconds to go before we start,  Dave and I spot each other and take our positions side-by-side in the starting corral. We are ready to get to work! 

M1 is a steep downhill start. It takes about a minute before we finally get some room to run freely. We say nothing.  M1 6:55

M2 and part of M3 are uphill. I planned to take it easy since I knew a long fast descent would follow. I wasn’t interested in fighting too hard early on and getting ahead of myself too soon.  Dave and I are still together. I tell him the next few miles are going to be fast.  M2 7:20, M3 7:16.

Dave starts to get a step or two ahead of me.  I don't force my pace.  Dave comments that he feels really good. He looks great.  He sounds great. I slowly watch him drift ahead of me. I felt I was running as fast as I could tolerate and still survive the duration. I was right at my red-line. I felt that pushing harder, even just a few seconds faster to stick with Dave would be a mistake for me. But Dave is stronger and bigger than me. He wasn't working too hard as he pulled away. I had visions of him waiting for me at the finish claiming a 3:05!  M4 6:54, M5 6:56, M6 6:58

The Pace Plan: I sent Dave my pace plan a few days before.  I don't know if he saw the plan. I scrutinized the past years results.  I calculated the average fade of the runners who successfully ran my goal time based upon the 18 mile split.  The hills came after 18 miles.  I did not expect to be able to Negative Split this race and still meet my goal. I wanted to hold an average of sub-7:10 through the half way, try to hold on if possible for that that same pace through 18 miles, coming through at just under 2:10. If I could do that, then my pace could naturally fade to a 7:26 pace as a terrain became more challenging through the last 8.2. If all that happened and he was with me, we would run a 3:09.  

I knew at mile 7 the course had a hill. I expected to fade a little, but I was 2 seconds below my goal pace for this section so I had some time to use.  I was able to pick it up again by M8. M7 7:16, M8 7:04 (Gel and salt)

Steamtown has rollers.  It is not a straight descent from 1-19.  As the terrain rolled I kept my effort even and just tried to keep my average pace a 7:10.  As I approached the half way mark, I was falling off. I was slipping into 7:11 average pace and knew I needed to think about what to do. M9-7:11, M10-7:16, M11-7:09, M12-7:15, M13-7:19 

First Check point - Targeting Sub-1:34
I hit the halfway mark at 1:34:xx and knew I was already off pace.  Someone calls out you are number 18 for the women. People had been counting ladies and I expected this to be the case. 

Mile 14.5 would start the trail section. I wasn’t worried about the footing. Nothing I read suggested I should expect to slow down on the trail. I was surprised to find that there was a lot of fresh cinder, rather than just hard packed dirt.  I tried to hold my pace but it was slipping. I felt it was a lot more work to run in loose cinder than to run on hard road.  M14 7:14, M15 7:19

With a few more miles of cinder covered trail, I decided that I was simply working too hard to maintain my goal pace and come out of it ok.  I was very concerned that pushing for 7:10's now would result in a hard blow up on the hills an hour later.  A guy next to me says, “Oh Wow. This is like running in quick sand!” I agreed. The effort it took to run a 7:10 pace felt like a 7:00 effort and it was incredibly too early for me to work that hard and expect to hold on. I decided to settle down and wait it out.  All I could do was try to make up time after I got back on the road. M16-7:28, M17-7:25, M18-7:22.  (Gel and Salt)

The Second Checkpoint - Targeting sub-2:10 at 18M
Finally out of the woods, I take a gel. It felts like I was a little late for a gel. I should have done it about a mile earlier, but I wanted to be near water. I was fading mentally as I knew I was falling off my goal with 3:09 slipping away.  I hit the 18 mile at 2:11:xx and knew I had a lot of work to do in the last 8 if I wanted to run a 3:09:59. I also knew that the worst hills are in the last two miles so it was going to be almost impossible for me to make up 90-120 second in those 8 miles. I started to feel defeated. M19 7:30

I needed to regroup. Re-focus. To dig. To start to fight. To not give up on myself.  I may not reach my 3:09:59 goal but I am still on pace for a PR and a PR is success!  I start to push a little harder and work every downhill I can find. M20 7:25

I am waiting for the music to start.  The music that appears in my head that helps me to feel strong. The music that distracts me from the pain. The music that propels me through. And today there is nothing.  None.  Not a single sound in my head except the pounding of my heart on my ear drums.  But I start to pick off ladies.  And I start to count my position. And I start to feel like I have a job to do!  M21-7:24 17th female.

Measuring Myself and Feeling Strong
I can see women ahead and I know I am moving steadily faster than they are. I am starting to feel strong.  "I read somewhere how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once."  I start to feel like if I fight and dig and use everything I got I might still have a chance at 3:10. I pass two more ladies. M22 7:23 15th female.

Dave had been ahead of me the entire time.  I knew if I saw him and caught him, it meant he was fading. I did not want to see him.  But as I approached 23 I did.  He was running well, but at this point, I was moving faster than most runners around me. Most were fading through the hills and I was holding steady.  

I was breathing so hard that I could tell Dave heard me before I got there and knew it was me. I asked him to come with me.  I wanted him to find a second wind. There were ladies just up ahead that I wanted to catch. He said he was done.  I asked him to dig.  He said he had nothing to dig for.  I told him he had more, it was in there... that he put it all in there during all our training... he just needed to find it.  

I had hoped he would unlock some false bottom of fatigue and come along with me so we could cross the line together just like I had imagined... but he just told me to go.  

I knew he was right.  This was his first serious marathon.  Pacing is very tricky.  When he drifted off ahead of me at mile 4, I thought about calling him back, telling him to stay with me because 7:09’s is fast enough for the 3:09:59... but I also know he is bigger than me.  He is stronger than me.  He trained with me but I know he can run faster than me.  I hoped that when he pulled away this meant he would finish hard and run sub-3:09. But when I caught him I knew he was depleted. He wasn’t going to be able to dig for low 7’s in the last 3 miles.  Three miles is a really long way when the legs are just empty. I know next time this won't happen to him. I know he learned a lot.  M23 7:32

I told him to stay strong and run for his PR, which would be HUGE for him.  A few seconds after catching up to Dave I was back on track trying to pass as many ladies as I could.  As we hit the very very steep hill I could no longer speak. A man sat on a chair at the top of the hill.  He cheered people up the hill. As I got close, he loudly exclaimed “Oh Wow, You Look Mad!”  I could not explain that I was in so much pain and just wanted it all to stop... so instead I just grunted at him and continued on my way. I think to myself "I feel strong!" M24 7:27, 14th female

We are almost done and yet there is still one more hill left.  I am working so hard.  I am mumbling random profanities out loud. The hill seems to last forever and I am running as fast as my legs can go.  Women cheer on the side.  One holds a sign that says,”Smile because you dont have to run tomorrow!” I think, “Not True!" I pass another lady as she walks up the hill. I think again, trying to convince myself of something I know is not true.  "I feel strong!" M25 7:22, 13th female

I missed the 25 mile mark. We are still running up hill and it just wont stop.  I ask a guy if we passed M25 yet, and he assures me we did. "Thank God!" I call out.  He laughs at me.  I fight to hold my speed.  I dont want to be passed by any women in last mile. Someone yells out a half mile to go!  I look at my watch and it say 3:06!  OMG, if he is right then I might be able to run break 3:10!!! I am trying to find any strength I have in my entire being to do this. I try again to focus. "I... FEEL... STRONG." (Lies... all lies) M26 7:21

My pace say 7:16 overall on my Garmin, but the distance is already reading long. I need to average 7:15s for 3:09:59 and I don't think I can do it … but I am just not sure.  Over the hill and down to the finish. I push myself as hard as I can.  My watch is already reading 26:3x and I am not there yet. The clock has turned to 3:11. I know I was only 10 second behind gun time. I wont get sub 3:10.  I won't even get sub-3:11.  That "half mile to go" was more like .7 miles to go, which it ok.  It felt great to believe I had a shot.  Last 0.2 - 2:30 (calculated on watch as 6:48 pace over the .37)

I finish strong, stagger though the finishing area, proud that I just ran the fastest marathon of my life.  I sit at the finish, waiting to see the finishes of those runners I trained. I find Steve and learn that he did get his BQ!  I find Dave and learn he set a new marathon PR by over 15 minutes!  I later get emails from the other runners I coached, learning two BQ'd and five in total ran personal bests either at Steamtown, Mohawk Hudson, or Chicago.  I call a few friends on the ride home to share all the amazing results of the day!

Final Time: 3:11:42
OA Place 163/2185
Gender Place: 13/931
AG Place: 2nd

I may not have reach my "A" goal, but I could not be happier with my result.  I wanted to run the fastest marathon of my life and that is exactly what I did!

At the end of the Into The Wild, Chris discovers that he has been looking at his life all wrong. He realized that living off the land, in the wild beauty of Alaska is a grand adventure and something to be proud to be able to do.  But he has no one to experience his adventure, his joy, or his struggles with.  He is alone and writes one final thought in his journal about what he has learned.    

“Happiness. Only Real When Shared.” - Chris McCandless 

Thank you very much for reading my blog. 

Photo by Donna Sajulga-Tablos


  1. There are lies, Damn lies, and then there's the stuff you tell yourself to get through the last 5% of a race. Your report was awesome and I'm amazed by your determination. I can only hope to run a 3:11...

    See you at 1 day...

    1. Thank you Sean! I really loved this race and I am so glad I can finally stop thinking about Steamtown Training :) See you soon.

  2. Wow Shannon! I enjoyed reading this so much. Your writing is like your running.......OUTSTANDING! I have never ran a marathon and probably never will, but I felt like I was there with you ever step of the way. Thank you so much for all the inspiration and encouragement you keep sending our way. I hope I have the pleasure of meeting you in person some day.

  3. That was an amazing story of an amazing marathon. Congratulations on your PR! You stuck it out and dug deep. Despite the fade, you never hit the wall. You may not have hit your optimal goal, but your accomplishment is huge - do not ever lose sight of that.

    The thing about setting a tough goal for a race is that even when you do not make it, there is still so much of which to be proud: the weeks of intense, focused training; the nerve and positive audacity to challenge yourself to the extreme; the feeling of having put it all out there, result be damned. Those are rewards that are valuable and unforgettable.

    You deserve to feel awesome about this race (and I have no doubt that you do). You crushed it. You killed it. You kicked that race's butt. And you already know what your goal is going to be for your next PR attempt. That 3:10 is just a race away.

    Congrats again. (And I sure hope you DIDN'T run the next day! The day after the race is for relaxation and ice cream!)