Were times better I would be barely able to move right now. The stiff, sore, heart-wrenching agony of rolling out of bed or even worse, descending stairs, is a badge of honor the day after a race. It is proof you have done something hard and meaningful and memorable.
For the last nine years the weekend after Mother’s Day has meant running one of the Cleveland Marathon races (the exception is 2013 when an injury meant that my only racing would be chasing friends around the course as a spectator). Though I did not plan to run the event this year as I continue my slow build up to fall training, it was nevertheless surreal to see friends and fellow runners sharing pictures and memories of a race that has been so meaningful but could not occur amidst the COVID pandemic. I even spent part of my long run on Sunday going over part of the course, remembering old races and wishing that instead of seeing an empty city I could be partaking in the excitement usually found on those city streets on this particular Sunday in May.
Running through the city, especially over the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, had me mentally poring over the triumphs and, yes, mishaps from those old races. Races run in 80 degree heat. Races run in a white out. The race that made me fall in love with running. The race where I enjoyed my breakout marathon. Races, and there have been multiple, that left me on the side of the road, slowly trudging toward the finish line, nursing an injury or my wounded pride. Along the way I have learned more lesson lessons than I care to count. Here are five that stand out.
1. 2011: Punch through the wall; there’s more left in the tank
I lined up for my first half marathon, my first road race of any kind, vowing it would be my last. The previous December when a friend had asked me to train with her for Cleveland’s half marathon I agreed, though with plenty of hesitancy. I did, to an extent, like running. I had run track in high school, though largely to pass the time until soccer season began. When I started grad school in a new city where I knew no one, I had spent my first quarter doing laps of Ohio State’s campus, logging miles while the marching band practiced in a field behind Ohio Stadium. I was not a passionate runner though and I hated training for the race. Yes, I swore, this would be it.
Things changed when I arrived downtown though. The energy of 20,000 runners infected me. It never occurred to me that hundreds of thousands of spectators would line the route the cheer people on. As the race wore on I began to enjoy, then to love, the togetherness I felt amidst a sea of people who were driving toward the finish line. Yes, I decided, I liked this running thing. However, I had never covered more than nine miles at a time and as I entered Tremont, that reality began to catch up with me. At Mile 10 I could not believe I had three more miles to cover. Worse, I had yet to climb the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, an unwelcome, leg-pounding section that was hitting right as my tank was emptying. As I neared the top a woman passed me, glanced left, and saw my misery. She offered words of encouragement, something about being able to do this. The words lifted me when I needed them the most. She was right. I could do this. I punched through the wall that had gradually been building and discovered a well of determination lay behind it.
The bridge crested and the slope began to descend. My turnover quickened, life returning to my legs (though my quads would take four days to forgive me). The kind words and the downhill were all I needed to break through my first ever wall. I reached the end of the bridge, took a hard left past Progressive Field, and powered my way through the city streets to my first race finish. I was hooked. I liked this running thing. I loved this running thing and was eager to race again. Nine years later I still remember that kind pick up from a fellow runner. Walls are a part of running and racing, of pushing boundaries. Keep pushing through them. There’s more left in the tank.
2. 2012: Knowing the area does not equal knowing the course
I returned to Cleveland a year later and feeling like I was very much the serious runner. The winter of early 2012 was one of the mildest I can recall and it lent itself to a much more strenuous training regimen. I can remember running in 80 degree weather in March.
When the weather on race day reached similar temperatures, I was unconcerned having trained through the mild spring. I was still inexperienced and chasing a time goal and so I went out hard and fast. I was doing this after three days of awful stomach pain which meant it had been hard to keep much food down or to sleep. I was chasing a fast race time that was not going to happen. I was too dumb to know it yet.
I was still hanging on when the race entered Tremont, one of my favorite parts of the course. Tremont has some of the most vocal support in any race I have run. For those inclined, beer is offered at impromptu “aid” stations. The whole community turns the day into a giant street party. Leaving Tremont for the return leg to downtown had been a straightforward affair the prior year. However, construction was now being done to build a new inner-belt highway section into the city and that meant the way out of Tremont had changed. I had not scouted this new route. I was a life-long Clevelander and knew Tremont well. What could possibly be so different?
Cleveland bills itself, and rightfully so, as a flat course. Other than a few bridges the course does tend to be flat. However, hills lead down to the Cuyahoga River that cuts off downtown from the neighborhoods that immediately surround it. Steep hills. The sort of hills you would not build into a race course unless highway construction forced your hand.
The way out of Tremont fell on such a hill. As I recall the hill was not particularly long but it was steep, so steep that if I had been able to hold on and keep running I still would’ve had to significantly brake to keep myself from tumbling down the hill. And the climb up? Forget about it. I was done. The combination of the heat, lack of sleep, lack of food, and the climb up my own personal mini-Everest introduced me to the first of what would be many instances of walking on a race course. I am pretty sure to this day that second Cleveland half marathon remains my slowest go at the distance. I learned my lesson: I’ve driven or biked every new course I have run since.
3. 2015: Prior success guarantees nothing
After the debacle of 2012 I enjoyed a solid stretch of training and racing. I could handle more mileage and my race times began to drop. Even an injury-plagued year in 2013 became a minor speed bump and by 2014 I was back to running longer miles and racing fast times. In the Towpath Half Marathon in October of that year I broke 1:30 in the race for the first time ever, the first true goal I had set for myself in the aftermath of my 2011 race. When I showed up to the start line of the 2015 I had put in another solid cycle of training. If there was a training code to crack, I felt I had certainly cracked it. I was going to learn that in running as soon you think you have everything figured out a run or a race will smack some sense into you. So it was in 2015.
Race day was cool but humid and I knew I didn’t run well in humidity. I was so focused on chasing time goals that I had not yet devised strategies to handle racing in different types of weather. From the outset I put the pedal to the metal and soon enough I was gasping for air and slowing my pace from cruising speed to a trudge. The year before, when I had been coming back from a year of injury, I had endured an up-and-down training cycle and purposely run the race at an easy pace, letting myself settle into what felt comfortable which ended up being surprisingly fast. A year later, with far better training under my belt and a recent sub-1:30 time at the distance I managed to come in slower than I had the year before, penance for failing to adapt to the conditions when I assumed my recent success would easily carry over.
4. 2016: We may run on our own but the suffering, and triumphs, are shared
The 2016 Cleveland Marathon is like a war story. Find a fellow runner who ran it and all you need to say is “2016.” You both know. Oh sure, you can say more, you can talk about it, in fact you will talk about it. But it’s not necessary.
It was the most Cleveland race ever. The day the race expo opened saw temps reach a comfortable 70 degrees with a mild breeze. Less than 48 hours later on race morning found the thermometer flirting with freezing and winds gusting to 40 miles an hour. The precipitation that fell morphed from a slushy sleet, to white-out level snow, back to sleet, and then rain.
This was the setting for my first full marathon.
Running a marathon meant a great deal to me. After I broke 1:30 in the half marathon I spent one more year training hard to better the time. Then my attention shifted to the full. I have wanted to run the Boston Marathon since 2011 and that 2016 Cleveland Marathon was to be both a first attempt at the distance and an opportunity to take measure of how far I still had to go to earn a BQ. True to form though, I planned to run hard and see how fast I could go, whatever the consequences.
Oh were there consequences. The conditions on race day in 2016 were not what did me in. Somewhere in training I had picked up a hip injury, one I thought I had beaten when race day arrived. When I felt a twinge of pain during my warm up I registered alarm but with less than an hour before the starting gun was to go off I didn’t think of backing out. I decided to go for it and prayed for the best. For 16 miles I ran hard and well. My half marathon split was the third fastest I had ever run the distance. However my hip had started acting balky at Mile 8. I was able to weather the storm for another eight miles but by the time I reached the turnaround to head back toward downtown the pain became overwhelming. Wet, hurting, and unable to maintain the speed that had built up my body to a temperature that made the conditions bearable I began a slow march back toward the finish line. I walked, I jogged, I did whatever I could to move forward, the cold settling in. I am shocked I did not get hypothermia. Given the reaction several runners had when they saw me maybe I did. At Mile 20 a rap of thunder echoed in the distance while it continued to snow. Thunder snow in May. All you could do was chuckle.
The marathon course back then finished on the Cleveland Shoreway which exposed runners to everything Lake Erie could throw at them. Wind that had been blowing mostly from the west now hurled itself from the north in waves off the lake at the exposed runners. I still had three miles to go and was on a section where no one could spectate and support runners (overall, despite the conditions, the support that day was incredible). At Mile 24 I heard someone shuffle along next to me. He was older than I, maybe in his 40’s. We made eye contact. “Let’s take this in together.” He was Chris from Michigan. He too had come to Cleveland to try to BQ after missing it at the Glass City Marathon just weeks before. He too was freezing but in far better condition than I to wrap up his race and get into something warm. But he insisted on staying with me. We walked a bit, then he’d encourage me to jog. This continued for two miles. When we exited the Shoreway and eyed the final straightaway he encouraged me to go on ahead of him. I echoed his initial encouragement back to him: “No, let’s take this in together.” And we did, finishing in identical times of 3:29:56. It was the only time I ever saw him, we’ve never spoken since. There is no doubt his selfless gesture got me to the finish line that allowed me to call myself, for the first time, a marathoner. Chris, thank you. I hope you’ve made it to Boston.
5. 2018: Trust your training and every now and then everything will come together
I learned much from 2016 and after a slight detour that required chiropractic care I once again eyed up a marathon in 2018. I had read about the training approach developed by the Hanson brothers, coaches to a number of notable world class marathoners, including Des Linden at the time of her Boston victory in 2018. Their system is unique: weekly mileage is spread out over multiple quality runs each week rather than crammed into one lengthy weekend long run, a practice they believe leads to injury, especially amongst sub-elite runners. The system intrigued me and I adopted it for my 2018 training. It was new territory and though I felt myself getting stronger I had to see it in practice on a race day to know if it would translate into marathon success.
All the years of going out too hard to chase time goals had provided valuable lessons. In 2018 I was more patient in part because my training allowed me to be. Though my pace in the early going suggested I was pushing, my effort felt calm and relaxed. When I think of that race I find that I have difficulty remembering much of the first 16 miles or so. My running felt smooth, absent of challenges. I was coasting, waiting for the real race to begin rather than making the mistake of attacking from the get go which had resulted in so many poor Cleveland races in the past.
Hitting the turnaround and powering around it was especially meaningful. It was here that I had come to a screeching halt two years prior. Now I made the turn with ease and began my trek back home.
As I checked my watch and noted the time I saw that I was two minutes or so under the pace I needed to be at to run the sub-3:05 that I was aiming for, a time I felt would comfortably earn me a Boston Marathon qualification. That would hold until somewhere around Mile 21 when I first felt one and then both calves start to spasm. I was about to suffer from cramps and right when I was beginning to feel like I had the race wrapped up. Still, the spasming was not painful nor was it slowing me down. I had the mileage under my belt from training to continue pushing the pace. I fixated on being aware of what was going on with my calves but not worrying. The spasms thus far were not slowing me down nor were they painful. The worst thing I could do was let worry take hold.
I was able to maintain that mindset for another three miles or so. Turning onto Detroit Avenue, the final stretch that would take us into downtown, I reached back with my left leg and felt it deaden. It simply would not extend. The calf cramps had been unnerving. This was bad. Very very bad. I could not run if my legs would not extend. Here was where the minutes I had banked would help. My left leg for the moment would not actually extend but I could still move forward with an awkward sort of pelvic swing while I waited for the cramp to subside. That second-to-last mile screeched by, my pace slowing by over a minute. Still, I was moving forward. With the last mile upon us I hoped that my body, sensing that this was almost over, would dump whatever reserves it had into restoring my stride. Thankfully it did and in that last mile the pace I had so engrained into my body over months of training returned. I did not break the 3:05 goal I had set for myself, but I did run a 3:05:11, a huge PR, my first BQ, and certainly a ticket to my first Boston Marathon.
That was not meant to be. That year’s field would be so fast that the BAA would lower qualifying standards by five minutes in an attempt to avoid excluding so many runners who had set BQ’s. I was one of the excluded, missing entry by three seconds. I was disappointed when I opened that email but looking back on the race that allowed me to even register for Boston, I cannot help but smile. I ran the best race I could. Years of hard-earned lessons in Cleveland had made me a better runner and prepared me for the day when my training, maturity, and experience would all come together to allow me to truly show what I was capable of doing. Now that we have sat through a race day that wasn’t, I am even more thankful for those experiences and look forward to the day when I, and we, can toe a start line downtown, hear that starting gun, and race forward into further possibility.