I first started running regularly in 2005, when I was in college. I slowly built up my mileage and confidence, and I ran my first marathon in 2007. Running made me happy and greatly improved my fitness.
But in early 2011, I had what can only be described as a running awakening. My times starting improving way more than I had expected, and I felt like a real athlete and a real runner for the first time in my life. I was setting PRs and decided I was ready to think about getting that much- coveted BQ.
Unfortunately, by the end of 2012, that BQ looked out of reach, and my times were slipping slower and slower. My running had awakened, and then it apparently went back to sleep. Here’s my story of how I got faster, how I got slower, and what I learned.
By the end of 2009, I had run two marathons, but I wasn’t particularly excited about my performance in either one. I had been injured for my second, so my time was really not what I wanted — over five hours — and after that race I felt like I really needed some time to rebuild. For 2010, I backed off the distance, headed to spin class more than usual, and didn’t sign up for any marathons.
I was fortunate to have an opportunity to work in a rural community for a year beginning in September 2010, so I took it. And that’s where my running awakening happened.
Here were the important things to know about my life for that year:
I worked 9 to 5 at a low stress but fun and exciting job. I loved the work and my co-workers. Although my job required me to be sedentary most of the day, I was able to walk to work, and I had lots of free time before or after to walk with my dog up and down the single road through town. People would always say “Oh, I saw you walking your dog on Main Street the other day.” Yup, I do that a lot. Walking, walking, walking.
I didn’t have internet at home, and I had only basic cable, with no DVR. Streaming? It hadn’t been invented. So the TV barely got used, and I didn’t spend hours playing around on the internet before and after work. I subscribed to Southern Living and Runner’s World hard copy magazines, which I read in the morning as I ate breakfast, or after a long run sitting in my La-Z-boy recliner. If I needed to check my email or research something, I’d do it at work or go to the local coffeeshop to use wifi. I got my first iPhone, but not until summer of 2011, and I mainly used it to track the weather.
I bought most of my food at the local farmer’s market. There weren’t many options in town for dining out. Especially for a vegetarian. Except pimento cheese sandwiches, which I did have from time to time. And the folks at work made amazing treats (pb fudge!). But mostly I ate seasonally, lots of veggies. I had real concord grapes that turned my whole mouth purple, fruits and vegetables I had never heard of before (seckel pears, husk cherries, roman beans), greens upon greens upon greens. I’d get in a bidding war over the precious few stalks of asparagus at the farmer’s market, and then eat them with eggs for breakfast. Veggies for breakfast became normal. Air popped popcorn was a staple snack for the evenings. By the time I wrapped up my job, I had somewhat unintentionally (but also somewhat influenced by No Meat Athlete) become vegan. Oh, and I wasn’t drinking because I lived in a small town by myself and was in a long-distance relationship. No dating, no bar-hopping.
I lived in the mountains. There was a flat rails-to-trails path a few blocks from my apartment. My other main running route featured a massive, massive hill. I came up with mantras to get me up that hill. You got this. Sometimes I’d play Gwenyth Paltrow’s “Country Strong” as I was running up it. Training on that big hill made other hills seem tiny. I made a few friends at the gym and one of them persuaded me to start trail running in the mountains once in a while with her amazing, supportive trail running group. I bought a road bike and occasionally rode with some locals, even though I couldn’t keep up and was scared of being attacked by dogs (not an unfounded fear). I’ve never been much of a swimmer but I started swimming a few times a week in the big indoor pool at the rec center. I starting meeting with a trainer once a week to work on lifting — I had the time and it wasn’t too expensive. I started doing yoga regularly to help with my IT band issues and bring back some of my flexibility. I rode horses three or four times per week — the most fun I can have while working out. It might sound like a lot, but these things all felt like hobbies, never like chores. Without distractions, it’s amazing how much time we have.
I was well-rested; I went to bed around 9:30 every night. Getting up in the morning wasn’t hard.
I didn’t have a scale at home, and I wasn’t on any specific diet or weight loss program, but I’m pretty sure I lost at least 5 lbs that year. But I could tell I had also gained a lot of muscle. I felt great.
As you might have predicted at this point, my running got faster. I won my first (and only) running prize: a travel mug for placing in my age group at a local 10 miler. My third marathon was the first time I really enjoyed running 26.2 miles (and the first time I ran a full marathon without walking), and in the spring of 2011, at my fourth marathon, I ran the Country Music Marathon in under four hours with a smile on my face.
At the end of my one-year position, leaving that small town was bittersweet. I knew my life would be very different in DC, with a more demanding and stressful job, less sleep, less free time, no trail running buddies, no friendly farmers, and no horseback riding. I wanted to hold on to my fitness and the peace I had developed in my life. And at first, I succeeded. I moved within walking distance to my new office, joined the fanciest gym I could find, signed up with a pricey trainer, and kept on running. I ran alone and I ran with my dog and I ran with groups I found on MeetUp. I got into a new relationship, and sometimes my new boyfriend would run with me. (I felt incredibly motivated to impress him — to run impressively and to look impressive and to be impressively smart and witty.) My job required a lot of sedentary time, but it was new and still ramping up, so it wasn’t yet too demanding or stressful. A few times I even skipped out for runs in the middle of the day. I was able to find a balance.
I lost a couple more pounds, I felt even stronger, and my running improved even more. In the fall of 2011, I ran the Baltimore Marathon in 3:58:19 and then, to my surprise, the Harrisburg Marathon in 3:45:20. In March, I ran the New Orleans Marathon in 3:44:47. Boston was in my sights. Just 10 minutes to carve off. It will take discipline, but I can do it, I told myself. I researched the easiest courses for qualifying and planned on signing up for Run for the Red in spring 2012 and Steamtown in fall 2012. I told people that I was working on qualifying. That it was within my grasp if I just worked a little harder. That I’d been improving so much.
Later in March, I ran the Virginia Creeper Trail Marathon hoping to again finish 3:45 or faster. It was raining hard that day and the dirt footing was particularly bad, so I was only a little disappointed with my 4:01:15 finish time. In April, I ran a 10 miler at a 7:51 min/mile pace, faster than I ever thought possible.
Feeling Down and Slowing Down
Early in the summer of 2012, my boyfriend and I broke up. I won’t go into the details but let’s just say the despair I felt afterward defied all explanation and reason. Work had also been getting steadily more demanding, and by the summer, it was consuming my evenings and weekends, making me more and more sedentary and stressed. The sound of my smartphone telling me I had another work email caused my whole body to tense. I went into the dark office on Sundays to toil and to cry to Adele. (I wish I was kidding.) I adopted a key exception to my veganism: when she wasn’t around, I ate allllll the M&Ms that one of my co-workers kept on her desk. When she refilled them, I emptied the dish again. I felt incredibly guilty about these M&M dinners, but at the same time like I deserved a treat, goshdarnit.
Most of all, I felt tired beyond belief. And fatigued. It was hard to motivate myself to get to the gym in the mornings, and when I was there, I complained to my trainer more often and I felt weaker. I had lost my fire.
I tried to date new people and filled my free evenings with a million first outings. But by the end of the summer, I just needed some space and a break from work, so took a weeklong solo vacation in San Francisco, me and a bike and a yoga mat and clean eating. Maybe I need a cross-country move — to mix things up and get back to nature, I thought. Ultimately deciding not to relocate to the West Coast, I less dramatically moved to a new spot in town. I liked my new neighborhood but after a couple of months I wondered if the lack of light in the basement apartment was making me feel even worse. And I was farther from the running routes I had frequented when I lived in my old apartment; I was less likely to squeeze in early morning runs. I bought one of those lamps that mimicked the sun rising. It didn’t help. I was training for the Marine Corps Marathon with a friend, and I dominated the conversations on our weekend long runs, recounting my unsuccessful dates and overanalyzing my breakup. (Thanks and sorry, friend.) As I put on a little bit of the weight I had lost, my body started to feel foreign to me, like bio-mechanically, things had changed. At the gym, I felt like I was disappointing my trainer, who I was meeting with twice a week (I was spending about $800/month on training and my gym membership). He would ask me “Are you still eating the M&Ms?” Yes.
I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in October in 3:58:24. It would have been much slower except a friend from high school was a true hero and, even though he could have run ahead at a much faster pace, he ran with me and encouraged me the whole way. Even though my finish time was still under four hours, my time confirmed for me that life was worse, in so many ways, than it had been before. That I was worse. The marathon wasn’t fun, and I didn’t feel like a superwoman anymore. My BQ felt far, far away, and maybe those other races had been a blip. Maybe I shouldn’t have told people that Boston was a reachable goal and fooled them into thinking I was an athlete.
Around Thanksgiving, I bought a three-day juice cleanse to try to “re-set” my body. I decided on day three that juice cleanses are dumb. I toyed around with Crossfit. I persuaded a friend to go out to bars with me late after work, just so I could laugh a little. In December, I ate crabcakes three days in a row, thinking that maybe my modified veganism was making me deficient in some key nutrient, and that’s what was making me so sad. I met with a nutritionist. She told me that I should cut out sugar, stop eating crabcakes, and incorporate fewer calorie-dense nuts and seeds into my breakfasts. I took so many B-complex vitamins that my hands turned orange. I made New Year’s resolutions to give up M&Ms and to drink more wine and to treat myself a little. After what had been a tough year, I bought myself fancy ring and a fancy bag.
Just after the new year, work sent me out of town for 40 days for an intense project. We ran on caffeine as we worked 18-hour non-stop days, without weekends, in a windowless room. We ate crap. So much crap that by the end of the 40 days I compared myself to a foie gras goose, just completely overfed with junk my body didn’t want. The food wasn’t very good but at the same time it was one of the few pleasures we had. Six hours of sleep was an accomplishment. Four was more common. I tried to run or do Crossfit in the dark hours of the mornings, and those moments felt good. But they weren’t enough to overcome the stress to my mind and body. The upside was that there was no time or energy to be angry or sad or to dwell on my heartache, and no privacy to cry to Adele.
When I finally came home from my assignment, I was exhausted and puffy. My trainer was disappointed in how much physical strength I had lost. I was disappointed too. But in other ways I felt really strong, like I had been to the edge and survived. It was time to move on.
I gingerly picked up my BQ goal and placed it on the shelf for another day. I needed to just enjoy running and life again. The idea of running the 50 states swirled around in my mind a little.
Embracing the Slow, At Least For A While
For most of 2013, I didn’t think about marathons. I did a 10 miler, and motivated solely by a bet I made with an online-date-turned-friend, ran an 8 minute pace. I felt great doing a few triathlons and even swimming across the Potomac. Although it took me a good while, I completed my first half Ironman in the summer of 2013. I moved yet again — this time to a light-filled condo. I quit my gym and my great (but stress-causing) trainer, and I really did finally quit my M&M habit. I enrolled in a crop share. I started dating my now-husband and regularly traveled to New York, where he lived. I loved exploring the city with him. The idea of running a marathon in each state became more concrete, such that in July, I declared in an email for the first time, “I am going to run a marathon in every state and DC before I die.”
That fall, because it was convenient, I ran the Harrisburg Marathon, the site of my previous 3:45 finish, in 4:04:25. My fitness loss was laid starkly before me in a controlled setting. But I reminded myself that for the 3:45 marathon, I was just in a different place in my life. I thought of how in yoga the instructor often reminds us to accept where our practice is today, and not what it did yesterday or what we want it to do tomorrow. Sure, I was slower now. But I had also overcome some serious struggles during those two intervening years, and I had some amazing things in my life to celebrate. My marathon time didn’t need to define me or my happiness or my strength.
For most of the rest of 2014, I took things easy — a few 10 milers, including one alongside my now-husband, and another triathlon. We went to a ton of weddings, and he moved to DC. He decided to try a marathon, and even though it wouldn’t get me another state checked off, I was excited to train for the Philadelphia Marathon with him. Helping him train reminded me how much I had learned and accomplished over my years of running. Without a time goal, I finished in 4:11:29. And that was fine.
We are told we are supposed to constantly improve. That we always need to be reaching for the next PR. I disagree. A few months ago, when I mentioned to a potential new trainer at a new gym that one of my long term goals was to qualify for Boston, he eagerly said, “OK, how do we do that? When is the race?” When I told him that it wasn’t the right time to make an attempt, he responded to the effect that I was giving myself excuses, taking myself out of the running (heh) before I even tried. And in that instance I felt so much anger and frustration towards him (which maybe wasn’t entirely fair…) But I wanted to shake him and explain to him that we aren’t weak just because we consciously choose to be a little gentler on ourselves, to take a few moments to breathe, to have goals that are tied to how we feel and not to how well we compete, and to acknowledge the external pressures and obligations in our lives. Sometimes, for our health and our well-being and our happiness, we just need to slow down.