Sunday, October 30, 2016

Follow Your Heart: Chicago Marathon 2016

On a snowy, cold Monday February evening this year, I was mindlessly cross training on the elliptical, stuck in day dreams about adventures past and those to come. The Chicago Marathon came on my mind, and although there isn’t too much detail that specifically stands out in my mind from when I ran it in 2009, the overall experience is one I’ll never forget. This was my second marathon and my first big city running adventure, and much to my surprise became a turning point in my running career. Without much focus in my training, I improved my marathon time by over forty-five minutes, and missed a Boston Qualifying time by a minute and some odd seconds.  It was a tough run and a discouraging finish, but it motivated me to do the work to achieve goals I never would have dreamed possible. With these memories on my elliptical mind, I considered for a moment possibly running Chicago that following fall.  After this quick consideration and my mind on to something else, I hopped off the elliptical, looked in the mirror, and noticed I had my Chicago Marathon 2009 t-shirt on.  Just as I was ready to assume this to be “just” a coincidence, I checked my email later that evening and saw an email from the Chicago Marathon about upcoming registration. This is no joke! I did some research on guaranteed entry, and my Glass City Marathon 2014 time made the cut. As one who does not believe in coincidences, particularly two in a row, I knew God was talking to me; I was meant to run the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 9, 2016 and so I started making plans. I had already planned to run the Cleveland Marathon that spring, with an aggressive goal of a sub-3:03, and figured Chicago would be a good “enjoy the experience” follow-up marathon.

As always, things didn’t go as expected. I ended up injured 10 weeks into my training for Cleveland, and was out of running for three months. I ended up traveling to Europe in June and North Carolina in July, shaking the ground I’d been walking on for years; my perspective on just about everything changed in more ways than this little blog will ever allow me to express. When the end of July came around, I had to make a decision. I was already registered for Chicago, but only had 10 weeks to train. My orthopedic doctor assured me I was healed and ready to go, but I wasn’t sure how my body would hold up. I had maybe 20 miles of running in me going into my training, my physique matched my lack of fitness, but something inside me felt compelled to at least try. With a series of check-in appointments set with my orthopedic doctor, my old McMillan training plan laid out with paces that were uncomfortably slow but matched with my current level of fitness, and many, many prayers, I decided to give it a chance. My goal was to make it to the start line healthy and energized, and to enjoy the experience of one of the world’s biggest and best marathons. 

The first week of my marathon training was incredibly humbling. After easing back in with no problems last fall, I expected the same transition this time around. However, for whatever reason, I was further behind that I had realized. I was extremely out of shape, my speed work was embarrassingly slow, and my first long run, 10 miles felt like 50. I was literally gasping for air trying to make my way through, my legs felt like they had bricks attached to them, and I was running 8:30min/miles. This continued on for the first few weeks of my training, and I started to think that maybe my good running days were behind me. And, to be honest, I felt okay with it. Like I said, much of my perspective had been shaken over the summer following a difficult year, and I was willing to accept whatever was to be. I was feeling good, had no abnormal pain, and was truly enjoying my training. 

After a few 5k races, one of which bringing to light more than "just" running thanks to my beautiful Grandmother (see:, things started to click into gear. As cooler temperatures made their way into Northeast Ohio, my runs became easier and I could feel myself progressing. I started to slowly increase my intensity, but forced myself to stay patient and to keep my long-term goals in the forefront of my mind. After pulling through a tough experience at the River Run Half Marathon on September 11 with a 1:30 (see:, I could feel my potential knocking on the door and it was time for me to let it open. 

Post-Painful River Run. Pushin' out a smile because the photographer was really sweet and I didn't want to be rude. LOL!

After the River Run, I had only four weeks of training left before race day. If I could get in a solid 18 mile and 20 mile long run, and at least one good tempo run, I was confident that I’d be golden to not just make it to the start line, but to cross the finish line with a decent effort. With life at an all-time crazy busy, physically and mentally, getting in these runs with quality was difficult. My 20 miler was the trickiest to schedule, so I ended up at the Tow Path at 6:00am, a time that worked for well me but didn’t exactly correspond with nature. Without paying attention to the fact that the sun wasn’t to rise for yet another hour, I eagerly arrived to a pitch black and desolate CVNP, and was forced to change my plans accordingly. I literally laughed out loud for a good five minutes as I sat there in the dark parking lot. I attempted to get on to the pavement to stretch but felt too foolish (and pretty scared!), so I got back into my car. This moment definitely put things back into perspective for me. Most things in life, we simply can’t control. We have to be adaptable, slow down our busy minds, and trust that God will help us get things done if it’s His will. And so I waited in my car for a good forty-five minutes, enjoying my coffee in peace and quiet, and when the sun came up, I was on my way.  I ended up having one of the best long runs I can remember,  managing a comfortable but challenging 7:32min/mi average, much different that my painful 8:30min/mi 10 mile run from just a few weeks prior. I drove home from that run feeling more confident than ever that, God willing, I would have a positive Chicago experience. But I only had two weeks to go!

With trust in my training thus far and my current level of fitness, I decided to sacrifice those last two weeks of training and tapered. I only had 8 weeks of true training under my belt, but something in me was telling me it was enough; I knew in my heart I was set. With a great deal going on in my life outside of running, I wasn’t going to argue, and so decided to faithfully follow my heart! It helped me relax, have time to accomplish what I needed to with more ease, while catching up on reading, rest, and good food. 

When marathon weekend rolled around, I was feeling healthy, energized, and beyond excited to take on Chicago. With my little travel bag packed tightly, I made my way to the bus station downtown to catch the Megabus to Chicago. After an 8 hour bus ride, I made some super sweet running buddies, and together we Ubered our way to the Expo. While walking in to the Expo, I was overwhelmed with emotion.  I felt so immensely grateful to be there healthy, full of energy, and injury-free, in addition to this being the second time in my life I’d been given the opportunity to take part in this incredible event. After a few loops around the Expo, I hopped into another Uber to make my way to my hotel, to discover that it was a half mile from both the start line and the finish line; it could not have been more perfect! After a little bit of walking, dinner, and a stop at the market, I was cozy in my hotel room watching tv, saying a special prayer on my Vatican Rosary, and was ready to fall into marathon sleep (Marathon sleep= laying in bed without moving with your eyes closed, hoping time will pass quickly because you’re too excited to actually sleep) with words from Luke 1:37 written in the 2nd Joyful Mystery, “Nothing is impossible to God,” soaring through my mind and nestling into my heart.

When I sprung out of bed that morning, I knew it was going to be a good day. I put on my special purple singleton, bought for me by my baby sister and Goddaughter for my 33rd birthday, my purple visor from Chicago in 2009, my Boston Marathon 2011 loud, proud green shorts, and my favorite arm warmers that have traveled more distances with me than I ever could possibly calculate. I was eager and ready to go, feeling blessed beyond measure to have the chance to run my best. This marathon wasn’t about anyone or anything; it was just about that moment. No past races were on my mind, it was just the here and now. I truly felt free without a worry in the world. 

After lots of hydration, coffee, a little breakfast, and my gear bag packed, I was set to go and made my way to the streets of Chicago. It was in this moment that I knew it was going to be a GREAT day. The weather was truly perfect and there were happy runners everywhere; I immediately made running buddies on my way to the course. I was shocked to learn that Chicago is classified as a World Marathon Major, bringing in people from all over the globe! I met people from England, Germany, the Netherlands, and my favorite being an extremely enthusiastic guy from Japan who’s run 118 marathons!!! The people I met before the race even started was in and of itself such a sensational experience. 

Security was on point, ensuring a safe experience was to be had for all 300,000 runners and the millions of spectators. We were divided into about 10 different corrals, making a huge marathon feel like a small one! The corrals were loaded with Gatorade and water stations, in addition to accessible porta-potties with waits no longer than 5 minutes. It was AMAZING; I was very, very impressed! I found my Cleveland running buddies, hung out with them for a bit, and then made my way to my start corral. The corral assignments were based on your recent running times; you couldn’t choose your corral. This was awesome, because it helped to ensure you were running with people at your ability level and REALLY helped make running through the race course smooth from start to finish. While making more running buddies in my corral, I started to verbalize my goals, something I hadn’t yet done up until this point. My goal was to finish uninjured while enjoying the experience and running my best through each mile. I felt confident that my best would be around 3:10, but I was only going to do so as long as my body let me. 

When the gun went off and we crossed the start line, I had to work hard to keep it together; I was so emotional! I cut the emotion as soon as we crossed under an underpass and my Garmin lost signal; I was in this thing alone! The 3:10 pacers (although VERY cute) seemed young and a little too funny (one of the guys was peeing on the side of the road in the first quarter mile), so I decided to ditch ‘em and do my own thing. At the Expo, I picked up a 3:10 pace tattoo and pasted it on my left arm. With the course clocks at each mile, I felt good about giving it my best and syncing it with the times listed on my pace tattoo. My Garmin came back on, but it couldn’t give me a consistent signal. So, I stuck with my new plan: I just ran what felt right. And it felt SO GOOD! 

The course was literally alive; spectators covered every inch of Chicago. I’ve run several other big city marathons before, including Chicago, but in this moment I was just in absolute awe. The spectators were fun, uplifting, spirited, and positive, kindly sacrificing their Sunday mornings to cheer on a bunch of crazy runners! The music, funny signs, and the chants make the experience the spectacle it is; the big cost in the entry fee is most definitely accounted for with this constant support, encouragement, and entertainment. I have to admit that the spectators carried me through this race; THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, city of Chicago! 
Love you, Chicago!!! <3

With my just “go with feeling good” mentality, I was running with the 3:00 pace group for a few miles. I knew it was fast, but it didn’t feel fast, so I just went with it. The marathon is SO hard for many reasons, particularly with how slow you have to run to conquer the distance; it’s a tricky mind game. Slowly, I faded from the 3:00 pace group and I ended up with the 3:05 pace group. I’m not sure exactly when I faded from them, but eventually I was crossing the half-way mark in 1:32:24. I was way ahead of 3:10 pace, and started feeling the distance, particularly in my back and in my abs. Although my breathing was under control and my legs were okay, I knew I needed to run this last half wise. The marathon is hard for so many reasons (have I already mentioned that?), in particular for how unpredictable every mile can be. You’ve got enjoy the miles that are good, and hang on when they’re tough. I said some special prayers to St. Teresa to give me the strength to hang on without pushing myself beyond my limits, and around mile 16, I got a little tug in my heart.  I had run a great race thus far, and definitely had enough in me to get to the end strong if I ran patiently and comfortably the last 10 miles. I decided to pull down my arm sleeve over my 3:10 pace tattoo, and from that point forward I just ran by blind effort. I didn’t check my watch for the next 7 miles, and was having so much fun with the crowd and making my way through the beautiful, vivacious city. I learned later that my pace dropped significantly during these miles, but my effort felt the same in comparison to the early miles so I was none the wiser in the moment. 

All smiles nearing mile 23!

Once I got to mile 23, I took a peak at my pace tattoo and knew I was golden for a P.R. and should be right around 3:10 at the finish. I decided to enjoy the glory of those last few miles, try not to do anything stupid to mess up all the work I’d done up to that point, and went on auto-pilot glide-mode. Somewhere in those miles, the cute 3:10 pacers caught me. Clearly they had a plan that worked, but I didn’t have it in me to hang on to ‘em. I was feeling good with my glide, knew I was in for a P.R., and was willing to pass on a sub-3:10 as long as I got to the finish in one piece. As I crossed through mile 25 to 26, people started to drop like flies on the course; it’s so hard to watch that happen so close to the finish. Emergency crews were carrying a guy off the course, and I couldn't help but feel helpless and a little flustered, and nervously mumbled to the guy next to me “We’re going in the right direction, right?” And he said, “YEP, WE’RE DONE!” I pushed the little incline to the finish, turned the corner, and saw 3:12s on the clock. Knowing I was in the 3:11s chip-time, and comfortably coasting through, I was in utter shock. I was literally laughing and crying because it was just too surreal! The announcer said, “WELL, someone looks a little happy!” and I started screaming, “YEAH YEAH YEAH!” fist-pumping in the air, Jersey-style.  I have no idea what prompted the fist-pumping; I guess I just wanted to hit something and all I had was air! The crowd ROARED as if they knew me, and WOW is all I can say about how that made me feel. 
I crossed the finish line, hands in the air, still laughing as I was still in complete shock. All bones were intact, I listened to my body, and I had a blast throughout the entire course. Most importantly, I knew I ran my best and never lost sight of what mattered. I was ecstatic, probably looked like a mad woman, and it felt amazing. I was announcing to everyone who’d listen, “I’M NOT EVEN GONNA BE SORE, I FEEL GREAT!” The emotion from everyone in that moment, in particular the international runners, is something I’ll never forget. It was truly beautiful.  Oh, and my official time was 3:11:39, a 7:18min/mi average, almost a 2 minute PERSONAL RECORD!!!!! It was icing on the cake; my time could have been a half hour slower, and if in my heart I knew it was my best I would have been satisfied. It was an awesome feeling of conquer; this entire experience is tangible proof that nothing is impossible to God. 

Post-Chicago smiles!!!

After I made my way through the finish line party, I went back to my hotel to change, grabbed lunch at a cute pub off of Michigan Avenue where I had my celebratory burger and fries, and then made my way back to the Megabus for my bus ride home to the CLE! Nothing could peel the smile off my face and the warmth in my heart, not even a stand-still traffic jam plus a delay at our rest stop that added an extra hour and a half to our bus ride! 

So, what did I learn from all this? Number one: the marathon is REALLY hard. VERY hard. It’s an iconic distance, and we love the challenge it brings into our lives and all the life lessons that come along with it, but it is most certainly brutal and every bit full of insanity.  No matter how many times I run marathons (this was number 13 for me), it never gets easier. You can’t fully prepare for all of the variables that impact your performance; you just have to train your best, listen to your body on race day, follow your heart, and run smart. You have to run uncomfortably slow in comparison to a 5k, and trust you are doing what’s right to carry you to the finish line. In fact, 5k racing and marathon racing are totally different ball games. You can be a great 5k runner, and not be able to master the marathon, and vice versa. In fact, I’m still unsure of which race is my strength, because I feel still haven’t yet fully figured out either distance!  

Number two: build a relationship with a doctor you trust. I felt confident going into this marathon because I was under the supervision of an orthopedic doctor, Dr. Cohn, who I’ve built a relationship with since my fibula injury in 2014. He tells it to me like it is, not how I want to hear it. He cares about my health, and understands my goals. He’s smart, experienced, and I highly respect him. I’m not sure I would have run Chicago, or any other marathon for that matter, if it weren’t for his expertise and medical guidance.

Number 3 (one of which I’ve been working towards since the summer and one I’ll be working towards fully understanding the rest of my life): we need to have a close relationship with God. I’m constantly asked, “How do you do these things all on your own?” My response used to be, “I dunno, I just do?” But my new response is, “I’m not doing it on my own!”  I’m just following my heart, trying to be a better person each day, in the light of He who created me who is by my side. Always.

Number 4: life will always be busy. I feel like I’m constantly hustling from one thing to the next, and I can’t imagine that changing anytime soon. It’s just how it is. But when we can surrender to the moment and just enjoy it with who were with amidst all the hustle, life is REALLY good. Amazing things happen when we are paying attention to them, not dwelling on what we did yesterday or what we have to do tomorrow. Stop worrying about the busy, and enjoy the moment! 

Number 5: follow your heart. It takes practice, but life is much better lived when we listen to our hearts and maintain faith when it isn’t what we want to hear, or seems beyond what we are capable of achieving. It wasn’t until my feet were on the streets of Chicago that I could fully feel my potential for that day. God wants more for us than we could ever dream; we just have to believe it and surrender ourselves to His plan. It’s not easy, and something we have to remind ourselves of and work towards understanding every day. We have to remember that no matter what, nothing is impossible to God.

Where does this bring me now? I’m not exactly sure. Despite my post-race optimism, I was definitely feeling the marathon the week that followed. I was extremely sore and physically drained; I probably could have slept for 24 hours straight if life allowed me. But, life doesn’t work around my crazy running schedule and so I took some time off and have been easing back into it. I may run a 5 mile or 5k race in November and/or December if my body is feeling up to it, but I plan on taking all the time I need to fully recover. I may attempt a 26.2 this spring, and/or one next fall, as I’d like to figure out how to get closer to 3:00. It’s a crazy and aggressive time goal, but I feel I have the potential to do so, God willing.  In the meantime, I plan to adjust to some life changes, enjoy my P.R., LIVE like a normal person for a little bit (whatever that means!), and perhaps pursue some new challenges. We shall see!

I am beyond grateful for every aspect of this entire experience, and everyone on this Earth and above who supported me along the way. The Chicago Marathon will forever have a special place in my heart. <3

Happy Fall, everyone! GO TRIBE (still love you, Chicago!)!!!

River Run Half Marathon 2016

It was a beautiful morning for one of my favorite races, the River Run 1/2 Marathon! 6 weeks into my training and 4 weeks before Chicago, I was hoping for a comfortable, solid pace that would get me under 1:30 but also allow for an enjoyable experience through the gorgeous Metroparks. I managed to come very close to my time goal, 1:30:01 according to my watch, but was 1:30:46 on my official chip time, so evidently I was all over the course! Which makes sense; this was a tough one for me. I wasn't feeling very well when I woke up this morning for whatever reason, and that feeling carried with me throughout the course. I had to put forth much more effort than I anticipated, and felt sickly and unsteady for the majority of the race. I couldn't find my autopilot groove, and had to focus extra hard and work through each mile. I contemplated my options as I crossed the half way mark, but as usual decided to push through, keep my focus on putting forth my best effort, reminding myself that it was going to be hard no matter what pace I ran, so it might as well be my best! Although I finished feeling a bit deflated, I am pleased as today was most definitely an important part of both my physical and mental training for the Chi-town Marathon, and although it wasn't a perfect race, I'm most certainly where I need to be! I have work to do these next few weeks, and there's definitely lots of uncertainty going into a marathon on an abbreviated training plan, but I am super excited and feeling very confident that, God willing, this may just be the right formula to get me to the start and through to the finish line with no injuries!!! After all, I was informed by my orthopedic doctor on Friday that I have "abnormal feet," LOL, so with yet another imperfection to add to my list, short and sweet training may be my only option for my running future! And this is okay with me! CONGRATS to everyone who ran today!!!!! Was so good to be in the presence of all the spirited, positive, happy runner energy! 

Early miles...

...later miles..LOL!

CLE Oktoberfest 5k Bier Run

With speed work on the agenda for today, I made a little last minute decision to make my way to the CLE Oktoberfest for the 5k Bier run. Coming back from time off due to yet another injury, my training this time around has been focused on patience. I've been easing back in with each run, giving my body the time it needs to adapt before focusing on my PR goal paces. The perfectionist in me struggles with this, particularly finishing workouts knowing I have more to give. But the rational part of me knows this is the only way to achieve my goals and continue running without injury, and that it will all come together in time. With this mentality, I didn't want to get too crazy out there, particularly because I'm planning on running the River Run 1/2 Marathon on Sunday, but I also didn't want to get too lazy and miss the opportunity for a solid workout. My goal was to finish with the feel of a good effort, which I was thinking would be right around 20:00. I was able to get a 1.5 mile warm-up and good stretching as I made my way around BW's pretty neighborhood campus, and felt loose and ready to roll thanks to the toasty late morning temps. Despite being all set to go, I felt nervous at the start, as I was worried about finding that perfect "not crazy, but not lazy" balance on the course. Fortunately, my nerves eased as I crossed the start line, and I focused on staying calm and comfortable with a good effort, and crossed the first mile in 6:10. I passed a few guys in mile 2, but my pace slowed down a bit and I crossed through around 12:30. Knowing I was on track but definitely feeling it, my goal through mile 3 was to not let anyone pass me, as I was fighting through the lazy "ehhhhh your legs are feeling it, take it easy, you're almost done" thoughts. However, no one was near me so I had to take it upon myself to keep pushing, and as I rounded the corner to the finish line I saw 19:50s on the clock. I pushed with all I had left and got just under 20:00 in 19:57, 6:26min/mi! With a 2.5 mile cool down and lots of stretching, my other major focus this time around, I was pleased with my effort and the results! Plus, I got some pretty cool beer steins to hold me over until I make it back to Munich for the real Oktoberfest, which I'm predicting won't be until I'm in my 70s and retired (Yes, I've already thought this through. LOL!). I'm feeling confident that I will be running injury-free this fall, and God willing, I will be at the River Run 1/2 Marathon this weekend and lining up on the streets of CHI-Town in just 5 weeks!!! Although it's definitely bittersweet in my heart, I'm ready to say good-bye to this truly amazing summer that has been filled with more blessings than I'll ever be worthy, and hello to a beautiful fall! Hope everyone has had a wonderful Labor Day weekend and is enjoying this amazingly beautiful day today!

For Rosemary: The Cleveland Race for the Cure

Born in 1917 to parents in their mid-40s, she overcame severe complications during labor and was a survivor at birth. She was a smart, hard working girl, and so skipped grades in elementary school, which eventually led her to earning college and advanced degrees in a time very rare for women. She then went on to marry my grandfather, who proposed marriage to her the very first night he met her, as he was a successful man who lived his entire life never settling for anything but the best. Beautiful, intelligent, with a vibrant, caring soul, he knew a great thing when he saw it. She became a mother to four children, her youngest with a rare genetic disorder of which doctors at the time knew very little. But she fought tirelessly from his infancy through his short adult life to ensure he received the best care and lived a good life filled with constant love, despite his extreme and painful lifelong challenges. She raised her family and was a homemaker while working as a highly dedicated school teacher; she was known for being found asleep at the kitchen table in a pile of graded papers. When her oldest child was in high school (my amazing Mama, her co-survivor), she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought and survived. Years later, she was diagnosed again, and she fought and survived. If you ask anyone who knew this survivor, they would tell you how kind, sweet, giving, and loving she was. Those who knew her well knew there was so much more to her, as she lived a life centered on caring for others, diligence, unrelenting faith, and constant forgiveness; she is the true epitome of selflessness. She never complained about her hardships, in fact most people had no idea all that she went through as she always maintained her sweetness, kindness, and dedication to giving of herself to others through it all.

This morning, I planned to run in downtown CLE in the Race for the Cure, hoping to test my fitness level in preparation for the Chicago Marathon. But as I made my way down Lakeside, my priorities immediately changed. While walking into the race area, I saw all kinds of pink balloons and tents, felt the energy of all the survivors and co-survivors, and was overwhelmed by the presence of a certain survivor, a beautiful Angel, Rosemary Dean Scully, who I'm blessed to say is my Grandmother. With this shift in focus, I decided to run the race as she would, with sweetness and gratitude, and so I made sure to say "thank you" and to give a smile and wave to every police officer and volunteer along the course. Partaking in this event, surrounded by kind, upbeat people just happy to be alive, was moving beyond words and put so much into perspective for me. Life is something that should be celebrated each and every day we have it. I'm so grateful for today, and for having taken part in this event. Moreover, I'm beyond grateful for my Angel, My Grandma Scully, survivor, whose presence is always so apparent exactly when I need her and whose example will resonate in my heart eternally, and for my other Angel, my Mom, co-survivor, who carries on her Mama's legacy each and every day simply by who she is.