His name was Otto Lam and he was yelling every 5-6 steps. “Go, Go, GOOOOO…. PASS ME… YOU HAVE TO GO FOR IT… DON’T STOP…. RUN FASTER… GET AWAY FROM ME.”
He was the 3:40 pacer, and he was 10 steps ahead of me and he was running a solid 8:20 pace. The sign he carried had a world of significance for me. Let it get out of sight and my dream of qualifying for Boston was gone. I was 1.5 miles from the finish and I had been falling apart for the last 5 miles. I could not believe this was happening. Not only was I not going to qualify- again- I was going to have the pain of watching the golden unicorn gallop past me in the homestretch.
Bangle had put the thought in my head the year I started running, 2012, at the Marshall University half marathon. It was my first half. “You’ll be qualifying for Boston before you know it” he said.
When I went on to complete my first marathon in 2013, it was all I thought about when I thought about running from that day forward. Getting that ticket. Hitting the benchmark. A dream was born.
Of course, back then the qualifying time for me was 3:35. So I set my sights on it, Somehow I thought that it wouldn’t be the hardest thing in the world. After all, it was only 11 minutes less than my first marathon time of 3:46.
It wasn’t the hardest thing in the world, but it was hard. In 2014, my troubles with the marathon started. Here’s a timeline, for some of you who may not be familiar with my ill-fated history that I’ve been told is like a Greek tragedy of running tales.
Fall, 2013. Ran first marathon. Set my sights on a BQ in 2014 for BOS2015.
Spring, 2014: Two weeks after beginning marathon training, acquired a Hamstring tear(??). Benched for 9 months. Lost ALL fitness (and I mean all…). DNSed Erie Marathon and Marshall University Marathon.
Winter, 2014. Started running again, very slowly. Eventually came back to 5ks, 10ks, and a half marathon.
Summer/Fall, 2015. Trained for Marshall University Marathon, again. Had a great training cycle. Ran a 1:39 half 3 weeks before race day. At 2.5 weeks out, injured my IT band on a routine easy run. Tried to run Marshall anyway, dropped at Mile 11 when I could no longer walk. Devastated.
Winter, 2015. Injured. Had a January birthday that gave me 5 more minutes for BOS2018, moving the barrier to a sub-3:40.
Spring, 2016. Started running again, with the sights on a fall BQ at Wineglass. Did some tris and duathlons, ran races.
Summer, 2016:. Had a strong marathon training cycle until August, when I dislocated my cuboid (it’s a bone on your foot, I didn’t know I had one, either) during a trail Ragnar relay. Was out for about 5 weeks, the most important 5 weeks of marathon training. Made the decision to defer Wineglass to 2017, and go for the later marathon at Philly.
Fall, 2016. Made it to Philadelphia Marathon. Race day dawned with some of the worst running weather imaginable… a 30 degree drop in temps, 25 mph wind at the start gusting to 50 mph at the finish. Made it to Mile 18 before I crashed and burned to a 3:56 finish, more than 20 minutes slower than my goal.
Winter/Spring, 2017. Nursed a mild case of peroneal tendonitis before firing things up again, this time for a spring BQ at the Glass City Marathon in Toledo. Started working a new job a couple of months before Glass City, caught the mother of all plagues and was sick for a month. Lost 4 weeks of running, plus my body was completely run down for about 6 weeks. Dropped to the half at Glass City.
Summer, 2017. Trained for a BQ at Erie. DNFed by Mile 13 at Erie after inexplicably straining my IT band.
Sept/October, 2017. Ran very little, between Erie’s taper and getting the IT band healed.
October 1, 2017. BQed at Wineglass.
Except I came to Corning with low and daily plummeting expectations. I had run less/tapered more than recommended in the final weeks leading up to Erie, but tried to tell myself that the rest would help. Then Erie happened… the bizarre muscle strain, the DNF, trying to regroup and get my head back in the game. I ran little between Erie and Wineglass; my only quality workout was one 16 mile long run. So I was running Wineglass after basically a 5-6 week taper. NOT optimally trained at all.
I left my house Friday evening to drive up to Corning, about 2 hours and 50 minutes due east. It’s a pretty drive- nothing but scenic countryside and little villages tucked into calendar-picture backdrops- and the weather was perfect. After arriving, I met up with Liz (KRG) at our podunk little hotel room that we snagged last minute when other lodging plans fell through… and were extremely lucky to get! We heard that Caitlin (Hot Pink Sneakers) was already in town with her parents, so we arranged to meet at a nearby Applebees for drinks. Before we got there, though, we had some interesting interaction with a lonely and obviously “seeking” pipeline worker from Tennessee who was 2 rooms down from us… and was toting a 10 week old puppy. His puppy ploy did not work on us as we announced our plans to meet up with friends and hastily exited.
I started the race weekend and Loopfest with a margarita. YOLO!
We are the Comeback Queens!!
And I was starving so I had steak quesadillas and they were divine. One thing I did well in the 2-3 days leading up to this marathon: eating!
Back at our hotel, Liz and I caught up with each others’ news before calling it a night. I slept long and well, which was a huge plus seeing as I don’t sleep well the night before the race. I’m all about banking sleep 2 nights out.
Caitlin, Liz and I had a shakeout run planned for Saturday morning, so we met up at 8:00am for that. It was drizzling and a little chilly. Perfect for running!
The next day was a fun succession of activities, friends, and food. Brunch at a local diner, packet pickup, touring the glass museum, getting souvenirs for my kids, seeing more running friends who were arriving into town. We even got in some artsy wine glass designing...
Eventually we ended up back in Corning for a delicious pasta dinner at an Italian restaurant. And a glimpse of the next day’s finish line. What a beautiful town and street… just charming and pretty. I felt my heart thud with anticipation looking at it. Would I sweep beneath that banner in triumph or defeat? It’s the gamble of the marathon.
Back to the hotel room for (hopefully) some pre-race shut-eye... Liz is a great sleeper and was off to dreamland in no time. I, however, was awake and tossing. I distracted myself by texting my husband and a couple of friends, which helped until about midnight when I started getting sleepy.
Race morning! Ughhhhh. I don’t bounce out of bed happy and excited on race day. The butterflies are gnawing, the nerves are rattling, frankly, I’m kind of a mess. I choked down a banana, some cookies, and started sipping Gatorade.
The bus ride to Bath was calming. Even more so was the location the race starts in. We were just up the road from a farm surrounded by rolling farmland, cow pastures, and trees. Upon arrival, Liz and I were relieved to see a huge white tent set up with signs and announcers telling us to go inside to stay warm. It was just under 40 degrees at about 6:30am. There were heaters being blown into the tent and 100 yards away was a long row of porta potties so everything was easy and convenient. Huddle in the tent, hop out to use the porta-potties, hop back in and warm up again. Our group started dropping in one by one… John P (slow running) Jonathan (J-Zee), Caitlin. We took some group selfies to commemorate the occasion.
The arrival of the 4:20 pacer caused a bit of a stir. Young skinny fellow with normal running gear on top… and nothing but a Speedo from the waist down! I guess he was really committed to distracting and motivating his pace group. He promptly found a spot near the middle of the tent, jovially chatting and seeming to thoroughly enjoy seeing everybody trying hard to, you know… pretend we don’t see. On one of my porta potty trips I happened to pass just behind him as he was exiting the tent… one poor lady who was sitting down was staring off into space when Speedo guy passed directly in front of her, squeezing through a narrow space between the lady’s face and another person’s backside. She suddenly realized that his um… package… swathed in Lycra/spandex was maybe 6 inches?? from her face. I had to put a hand to my mouth to suppress a giggle at the look on her face as her eyes widened and she recoiled. Like, whattheheckdidIjustseeOHMYGOD. Yes, ma’am, we’re all thinking that.
The minutes ticked down and suddenly it was time to toss checked bags into the trucks (again, so organized and easy!) and amble to the start. We exchanged hugs and good luck with everyone as we headed to our respective pace groups. I found a spot by the 3:35 pacer and shed my throwaways. The 40 degree air felt crisp… the sun was partly hidden by a thick cloud of fog hanging over the rural countryside…hardly any wind… perfect fall day to run!!
So we ran!
My goal for the first 10 miles was to keep things easy. The best way to do that, I figured, was to stick to the pacer. I was behind him like glue for about 5 miles. He chatted with some of the group, so I listened to that. Everything felt good. Easy. Not much effort. Just right. There was a hill just before Mile 6, but not a bad one, and I took a gel thereafter to put some more zip in my system. Not a complaint from the IT band. Not a complaint from anywhere! I was gradually pulling away from the 3:35 pacer and by Mile 7-8 I had lost him a good half mile behind me. Still reeling in mostly 8:00-8:10s.
Feeling OSOM and cheesing for the photographer...
Continuing on, miles 7-14 were my fastest of the race, all between 7:58 and 8:10 pace. They still felt easy. I was in a good, good place. By now I knew that my IT band was not going to give me a repeat of Erie, at least not nearly as quickly, since Erie already had me feeling pain by Mile 9.
Although some people don’t like a race course that is fairly quiet and isolated, I am a country girl… green grass and trees and mountains give me peace. I absolutely loved this course. There were animals in pastures and stately farmhouses and the smell of earth in the air. High rolling hills or baby mountains behind the picturesque tableaus, still covered in the fog gave it an ethereal feeling. Every few miles we would enter a quaint little town or village, and it would be a nice pick-me-up to have spectators. There were kids high-fiving and people sitting on their front porches. At one church we passed, the parishioners and clergy came out to cheer as a group, dressed in their robes and church finery… wearing out their voices for us before even beginning singing and praying! One barnyard had about a dozen people spectating… they had set up tables with coffee and a variety of snacks, and were holding out plates of cookies for the runners. I didn’t see anyone taking any cookies or coffee, but I figured if they’d done this before they knew they’d get plenty of love from the later runners who were more about the experience than losing a few precious minutes at a snack table. For just a second, I wished I was one of those today… I wanted a cookie!! Eyes on the prize, Peg… cookies afterward.
There were lots of wine references in the handmade signs spectators were holding. “Pain Now, Wine Later” “Hurry up, there’s wine at the finish line” “Just get to the finish wine”. The wine theme is, hands down, one of my favorite things about this event. I got the sense throughout the whole weekend that the areas the race runs through, and Corning, especially, are very proud of their reputation with this race. Everywhere we went, folks were accommodating, friendly, and intent on making a good impression.
Mile 15-17 8:07, 8:06, 8:08. I was so happy! Being in such beautiful surroundings, feeling good, doing something I love. I was also getting excited that everything had gone well up to this point and envisioning finishing well. I was in single digits going home, the majority was behind me. At the same time, oof… 9 miles is a long way.
And then, bam. In a big way. I suddenly felt fatigue creep in, and not just a little. I needed another gel, so I decided to slow down a little, walk through the water stop, assess how I feel, etc. This is the point where, if everything went perfectly, I hoped to pick things up a little bit. I don’t know if taking a little moment killed my momentum or if it just happened that the miles were taking their toll on my legs after so much time off from running. But I went from feeling amazing to feeling like crud. I became very aware of a dull ache in my hip, up where the IT band attaches to the bone… the spot that had been sore ever since Erie.
Knowing I was still way ahead of the 3:35 group and on 3:32-3:33 pace, I gave myself permission to just scale back a bit. Take a mile or two and breathe. Walk through the water stop, drink plenty.
Mile 18-19: 8:27, 8:22. Nope. Not getting better. In fact, the hip pain was now traveling down my leg to my knee, the one that had been all the trouble at Erie.
Mile 20: 8:41. I was taking walk breaks.
Mile 21-22: 9:02, 9:04. Full on bonk and pain and hurting everywhere from the waist down and having my energy drained away like water in sand.
Somewhere in here the 3:35 pacer passed me. I tried to glue myself to them, maybe I could just pull together enough to stick with them? But the steady 8:12 pace was too much and I fell back.
Mile 23: 9:11. I was sick at heart. Mentally and physically done. Every now and then I tried to kick up the pace and hold on to something in the 8s, but when I did my heart rate would soar up to 180-185 (which is 5k effort for me), pain would take over, I’d be a hyperventilating mess and have to walk. Run… die… walk… recover… run… die…walk... RINSE. REPEAT.
Mile 24: 9:15. It’s over, I thought. My knee and hip is killing me with every step and I am bonking. I’m lucky to finish with a 10:00 minute pace and maybe a tiny PR? I’d banked enough time that a PR was still going to happen. But I didn’t come here for a PR, I came for sub-3:40!
Mile 24.5. Where I had The Moment. You know how when something high-stress or particularly intense triggers all kinds of crazy in you and you break down and maybe cry and go into a place so dark it feels like you will suffocate… it only lasts a few minutes… and then you snap out of it and are like, “sorry, wow, I just really had a moment there.” ?? Well, that was me. I heard the 3:40 pace group in the distance. I took off running, hoping I could get back into some momentum. Instead, I fell apart a little. I swore, I started crying, I prayed, I just HAD A MOMENT. Now the darn 3:40 pacer was coming up alongside of me as I was run-limping off to the side. I glared out of the corner of my eye, sobbing quietly under my breath, my brain a fog of defeat and pain. I couldn’t do any math anymore, so I had no idea where I would finish. All I knew is that the number on that sign was the barrier. The bridge. The dividing line between what is and what could have been.
You can’t be doing this!!!! You CANNOT LET IT GET AWAY. Peg, you are an idiot. No matter how much pain you are in, no matter how little energy you have, this is a choice you have to make.
Faces and names started flooding my mind, breaking through the fog of negativity. The people who had been texting, calling, talking to me in the days and weeks leading up to this race… sending me their positive energy, their prayers, their wishes, their love for my race. My running friends in Erie. All you people on the Loop. My husband, who has been my most faithful fan and wanted this for me badly. A couple of non-running friends I’m close to who have been amazing in supporting my crazy hobby even if they don’t fully understand it. Looking back, I feel like God put those people in my mind to carry me through the final stretch. It was as if all their collective voices were in my head saying, “Peg, don’t let us down now… don’t let yourself down.”
And Otto Lam, the 3:40 pacer! Bless his heart, he was yelling and trying to get his flagging, tired group of about 3 runners to stay with him. PASS ME, PASS ME! He bellowed. GO GET IT, YOU PEOPLE! DO NOT FALL BEHIND ME! LEAVE ME! PICK IT UUUUUUUUUP!!! Seriously, it was like a nightmare in which Roger (ocean101), Loop pacer/sadist extraordinaire, suddenly became Asian and developed the ability to project his voice to about 3 times its current volume. Then you would have Otto, the bellowing 3:40 pacer of the Wineglass Marathon.
I snapped out of my moment, thanks to Loud Otto and the mirage I just had of all the people I loved and envisioned urging me on. Whatever pain I was feeling and whatever energy I was not feeling… it would not compare to the pain if I let that 3:40 slip away and finish just seconds or minutes behind it. Seriously, in that moment… though I know that’s overly dramatic, but c’mon, I was an emotional mess at this point, melodrama is inevitable… my thought was that I would not be able to live with myself coming so close and failing. Gathering myself together, I prayed one last time to be able to bear the pain, to not pass out, to not fall down or end up in an ambulance (I’m fine with a hospital right afterward, Lord, just let me finish first). Then I dug deeper than I ever have before and started running.
By now, I was at 24.75. The Moment had lasted a quarter mile. I never stopped again for the next 1.5 miles. I closed the gap between myself and Bellowing Otto. He screamed at me to pass him and I did. I was gritting my teeth, breathing hard, feeling stabs of excruciating pain on my left side with every step. Along with, you know, everything else that hurts in the last miles of a marathon. All I thought was YOU WANT THIS, YOU WiLL GET THIS, YOU WILL NOT LET THE MARATHON CURSE STRIKE AGAIN.
And you can finally make the people who believe in you proud.
Mile 25: 8:38.
As the next mile started, I didn’t know if I could hang on. I knew I wouldn’t stop on my own will, but I wasn’t sure that I would not pass out or collapse from exhaustion. Well, so what, at least then I’d know I tried and died with my boots- er, running shoes- on…
Hardest mile of my life, though. I’ve had painful sprints to the finish, lots of them. In 5ks, halves, etc. But none that carried this combination of fatigue and pain and desperation. And none that lasted for an entire mile and a half. I could still hear Otto yelling for a little bit and I was scared that maybe I was not running as fast as I felt I was. I could not bring myself to look at my watch. Maybe he would still catch me? Maybe I wasn’t even close to coming under 3:40?? Refuse to feel anything physical right now, I told myself. Stay in your mind. Just RUN.
Then there was a mean little bridge, just before turning into the final homestretch. It hurt. Which is probably why they put a photographer there. Sadists.
After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the final turn. I couldn’t hear Otto anymore. But I could see the finish line. The entire length of the street was lined with people. There was music and sunshine and flowers everywhere… the most beautiful finish line ever. Adrenaline, just about the purest, hardest shot of it I’ve ever had, kicked in and my mind kept screaming that I am DOING IT! My face kept wanting to crumple with the emotion I felt about doing it and it was hard not to bawl my eyes out the entire length of the street but dang it, that takes energy and I gotta run! I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, everything seemed kind of hazy and floaty and AMAZING. I didn’t even realize that I went from crying to smiling just before the finish, but the photos prove it:
My eyes never left the arch with the huge FINISH words on it. Except just before crossing when I saw the clock reading 3:38 something. I realized that my long-sought dream of years and miles and sweat and tears was coming true, right here, right now, in this beautiful moment... oh my God, this is real? This is happening?! I threw up my hands in some fashion of a victory salute… it’s ½ Bangle-Pump, ½ my-fist-clenching-my-heart-because-I-am-so-overcome-right-now-that-I-can’t-breathe.
My last mile? 7:49. Desperation, desire, and adrenaline. And joy, for the last 100 yards. So much joy.
I alternated smiling and crying my way through the chute, taking my heat sheet, trying to say Thank You to the volunteer who handed me a medal, hardly able to fathom what happened. My legs completely shut down on me, of course. Normal marathon lock-down plus being unable to bend the right knee thanks to the now livid and throbbing IT band. But I loved that this time, the pain was what brought me to the goal. Not just today’s pain, but all the disappointment, defeat, and injury I’ve accumulated since I started dreaming of qualifying for Boston. Yes, I know it won't be enough of a cushion to get into Boston, but being a Boston Qualifier is something no one can take from me. A huge mental block is lifted from my mind... I know I can do it now, and do it again faster soon to get those 2-3 extra minutes.
4 years. 4,800 miles of running. And here I am.
PS. And a huge shout out to all the OSOM Loopsters who were there… who made the weekend so enjoyable… and who smashed their own races with amazing performances. You all rock. A special thanks to NavEng/Tim who found me in the crowd and was the first Loopster I saw right after finishing (and survived seeing me ugly-cry and babble, it’s a wonder he stuck around to see the rest of us after that). The 6 of us all came into Wineglass with sub-par training and lost fitness because of illness or injury… but we all PRed. It was a great day to be a runner!