Keep Calm and Marathon On

On the beautiful, sunny Friday morning of August 16th just after 11:00 a.m., I left my apartment to pick up the boys. Months of training had officially come to an end, and our Pikes Peak weekend had officially begun.

That whole day was pretty relaxing. . .for me. I didn’t have to think about a race the next day. We first hit downtown Manitou Springs to pick up our bibs, bracelets, and hit the race expo. That was the first time that weekend I saw him: the one – the ONLY – Mr. Bart Yasso, Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World Magazine and running legend. And, of course, I had to say ‘hello.’

“Hi, Mr. Yasso! I followed your marathon training plan again. Running the marathon this year!” “I’ll be at about a half mile from the finish line cheering runners on.” “OK, you’d better look for me!”

Then, after settling into our hotel room, we got to work – Sifted though our bags to load hydration vests with Gu energy gels, salt pills, and extra technical tees; set out running attire; completed emergency information on the back of our bibs. Ready!

Ready for Battle

After dinner, I had something I had been waiting to spring on the boys - a last-minute good luck charm sure to put us in a racing frame of mind thanks to our friends at Trail Runner Nation. Yep, you guessed it. . .none other than authentic Performance Enhancing Kokopellis!

Performance enhancing kokopellis? Could we be any more ready for Pikes Peak?!

Performance enhancing kokopellis? Could we possibly be any more ready for Pikes Peak?!

PEK Divider

Saturday morning, I played a role I’d never played before: race support. I was up with the guys at 5:15 a.m., asking what they needed and offering bids for casual conversation to keep them relaxed.

At 7:00 a.m., JD’s wave of the Pikes Peak Ascent was off. Dakin was next, and he was nervous. And suddenly, so was I. Only 24 hours until the gun went off for my race. Gulp.

Once Dakin was off, I was ready to take off. First, though, I just had to take advantage of what was very likely a once-in-a-lifetime photo opp. Readers, meet Arlene Pieper, the first official woman to finish a marathon in the United States. Which one was it? I’m glad you asked – Pikes Peak in 1959! Kindred spirits? Maybe. A gal after my own heart? Most definitely!

Arlene & I Before PPA

She had some words of advice for me as a first-time marathoner at Pikes Peak that ended up coming in handy: “Whatever you do, don’t stop. Just keep going. You’ll do great!”

After committing these words to memory and offering a whole-hearted ‘thank you,’ I sped walked back to the hotel, quickly got ready, and grabbed a few articles of clothing requested by the boys before jumping in my car and heading to the summit of Pikes Peak.

I had never been a spectator at the Ascent, and I both loved and was completely stressed out by it. It was fun to watch the racers as they approached the finish line, especially because I knew exactly what that was like and empathize with them completely.

I saw the ‘death marchers’ and could feel the burning sensation in their lungs and wary legs. I saw those lucky enough to still have some ‘umph’ to run at that elevation, and I felt their hearts pounding in their chests and heard their internal monologues: Almost there. Stay tough! And, after what seemed like an eternity of squinting and studying runners from a distance, I saw JD and Dakin race to the finish.

We wasted no time getting back to my car and down the mountain to pizza, potato chips, cookies, and most importantly, a much higher percentage of oxygen in the air back near the starting line in Manitou Springs. Back at the hotel, the guys started winding down. . .and I started winding up. It was my turn, and the clock was ticking.

Two awesomely calm guys slash amazing friends kept me calm when, right before heading out to dinner, I realized that I had forgotten an essential piece of racing attire – my sports bra. Really, Mel? REALLY?! Ladies, I know you feel me on this one! You don’t mess with the sports bra! A few clicks of the iPhone and a quick trip to a local running store within an hour of closing later, we finally found ourselves at dinner.

After what had been a long, rushed, and stressful day, I was all worried out. I had no energy left to feel nervous about the race the following morning. All that was left was a surprisingly relaxed and even smiling girl enjoying a night out to dinner with the best trail running buddies for whom anybody could ever ask.

They, and a few good luck charms – the necklace my good friend Dave gave to me after I paced him for the last 15 miles of what was then his marathon PR and the shirt that my NC running buddy Melissa bought for me at the Boston Marathon expo after our first year of running together – proved the best possible companions on my marathon eve.

Marathon good luck charms!

Talk to me, Goose. . .

PEK Divider

When my alarm went off at 5:05 a.m. the next morning, I woke within seconds and shut it off before the guys heard it. I thought they might have slept through my getting up; but the minute I stepped out of the bathroom, I was greeted by both Dakin and JD, sitting up straight and at my beck and call. “What are you gonna do now?” “I think I’m going to go grab some breakfast.” “I’ll come with you.”

Their attentiveness and concern the entire morning – and the entire day – was a welcome deviation from our typical razzing each other for every reason under the sun for twice weekly bouts on trails and at Snug runs. In fact, I think they were more nervous about the race than I was:

Shouldn't I be the one with my game face on?

Shouldn’t I be the straight-faced one?

During my warm up, I felt great. My muscles were loose, and I had not even the slightest pain or strain anywhere. Even better than that, I had somehow remained not only completely relaxed, but even a bit jovial leading up to the start – a far cry from my typical ‘get the eff out of my face’ demeanor and straight-lipped game face self before a big race. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that relaxed and positive before a race before.

All systems were ‘go.’ Today’s gonna be a good day.

And then, I saw him for the second time. “Hi, Mr. Yasso!” “Hi, Melissa!” “You remember my name?!” “Your bib helps.” “Oh, ha ha! You’d better be looking for me at the finish, because I’ll be looking for you!”

Shortly thereafter, I handed my coat to Dakin, geared up, and hugged Dakin and JD before heading over to the start to line up. “See you guys in twenty-six point two.”

And I was now on my own.

The gun went off, and I started my watch when the slow-starting mob of fellow competitors finally started moving and I hit the first chip sensor. A whole year of thinking about that very moment and four months of dedicated training and mental preparation for it were about to be put to the test.

The first mile felt amazing. Maybe a little too amazing. Slow down a bit. Don’t burn up too much energy just yet. But I had no way of knowing my pace. For the previous two years, I carried a laminated chart with pace markers for key landmarks along the course. Hey, I don’t call myself a nerd for nothing, peeps!

Well, most of my belongings were still sprawled out in disarray across my bedroom floor as they had been since moving into my new apartment weeks before. I couldn’t find my chart when I remembered to look for it just before I left my apartment two days before. Too late now!

I thought I slowed enough; but feeling a bit fatigued after only a few switchbacks of the Ws, I wasn’t so sure. The remainder of the Ws were a bit of a physical struggle, but I was finally able to get some good running in when the course flattened out after the last switchback.

Flattened. Ha! “Flattened” along the Barr Trail means that the incline grade is only about five percent. After continuously climbing at a much steeper grade, though, that five percent could feel just as welcoming as a gentle breeze.

The ‘breeze’ was not as gentle as I remembered it last year. Then, I felt so much stronger and gained ground in a good time. At that point during the ascent this year, though, I wanted to run harder; but my body couldn’t. Instead of picking runners ahead off and passing them one by one, I had to spend the easiest part of the ascent catching my breath, knowing that steep and technical terrain – and an extra 13.1 miles – awaited.

At every single aid station, I grabbed a fist full of something – grapes, Skittles, dried cranberries, whatever. I think it was at the Barr Camp aid station that I had some cranberries and felt as I always imaged Popeye did after he downed a can of spinach.

Popeye

Let me at that trail! LET ME AT IT!

Woah! That helped! And then, it hit me. You moron, when was the last time you took a Gu? I brought several with me but had completely forgotten. Is that why I’m so tired?

I took one then, but I really should have taken one about two miles – and at least a half hour – earlier. During the next few miles, I felt weird. I thought at one point I was dreaming about the race rather than actually running it. Can I stop? And then I realized that if I indeed did stop running in what I thought was a dream, I would actually stop in the middle of the course.

That weird feeling came and left for a couple miles more, then I hit the next big climb of the trail, this one particularly technical and very notably steep, especially when compared to the “easy” part of the trail I had just left. I actually started to feel a little better and managed through this section all right.

And suddenly, I was there - tree line. The switchback passing the A-frame marks the end of forest and shaded trail riddled with exposed tree roots, big rock step ups, and loose gravel and the beginning of the unobstructed sight of reddish colored trail and complete exposure to whatever the elements had in store, which, that day included cloudy skies and distant thunder.

Even on my strongest of days during my past two ascents, tree line - a.k.a. the elevation at which the air is too thin for vegetation to survive - has marked a very different race. Three more miles is all you’ve got, then it’s downhill from there. Keep with it. I ran for the first part; but then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Much sooner than I thought I might be, I was part of the dreaded ‘death march’ along the trail.

During miles eleven and twelve, I winded back and forth along the trail up the mountain alternating between feeling OK and running past a few walkers ahead to walking myself slower than a snail’s pace and feeling like I was going to die. No sooner could I tell myself, “No more running for you until the way down!” I felt fine and wanted to push forward faster again.

I thought of that Tuesday at Mt. Falcon when I did my 6 x 800 workout on the technical ascent up the mountain. Remember how much that first 800 hurt? How you thought you couldn’t possibly do all six uphill? But you did! And Arlene’s advice echoed in my head. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Just keep going. And I did.

Finally, with one mile to go to the summit, I got a most unexpected burst of energy that made me want to get to the top as fast as I could. The faster I got there, the sooner I would (hopefully) stop hurting and have only the downhill left. I ran a few steps past walkers when I could, kept my eyes on the trail a few yards ahead to propel myself forward instead of looking down at my feet to will them to take another step.

I even had a bit of energy to share a little humor. For the two years prior during the Pikes Peak Ascent, there was a set of spectators playing kazoos at a switchback shortly before the Golden Stairs. And, they were there again this year. “Are you taking requests?” “Sure, what do you have in mind?” “The Ants Go Marching.”

More and more spectators and race staff cheered me on as I pushed forward. “Good job, Melissa! Almost there!” “You look good, Melissa, stay strong!” Their encouragement was most welcome, and it definitely helped me to power through the pain. I managed to gasp many a winded ‘thank you’ to them and tried to offer runners already coming down the mountain my own kudos as well.

Still, my body pushed back with a slight pang of ‘ouch!’ in my right hamstring. My fatigue, combined with the elevation and my suspected lack of proper fuel along the way all added up to my hamstring wanting to cramp. Flashbacks to my first ascent – and the terrible cramping pain in both hamstrings and calves during the final mile of the ascent – came to mind. Oh, hell no! Not again!

Finally, I could see the bright yellow banner announcing the summit and turn around point not twenty-five feet ahead, and I couldn’t possibly get there fast enough. The faster I neared it, the faster I seemed to move. The faster I moved, I kept telling myself, the faster I could head back down. And, when I did finally make it there a few moments later, only two words came to mind. . .um, pardon my French, please. . . F$#% ME!

You on the edge of your seat yet? Stay there, and stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of the story of my FIRST marathon. . .

Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.

Here goes nuthin’. . .

So today marked my official last training run – a “very easy” three miles, the length of the actual Snug run course. I can’t remember the last time I only ran the regular route and no extra laps. Think it was during my visit home over the holidays. Or maybe last year for my final training run. Huh.

Monday and Tuesday, I felt quite highly strung – a big bundle of nerves, lines around my eyes like a cartoon character expression, agitated, and about to tear my hair out:

AAAHHH! Yup, Tweek. Exactly!

Yup, Tweek. Exactly!

Wednesday, I felt a lot better, even from just waking. Maybe it was my constant self-soothing attempts – Calm down. Just breathe – occasionally paired with an actual deep breath. Maybe it was the good decision I made to reset my alarm to 8:00 a.m. after hitting the snooze button twice, allowing me a full eight hours of sleep. Maybe it was Lauren Fleshman‘s encouraging Tweet in response to my own:

Lauren Fleshman Tweet

Whatever it was, I’m so happy it happened.

Work kept me busy and my thoughts occupied today; but on the way to the Snug, I felt the beginnings of a good pang of “Ouch!” in my left rib cage, much like the one I felt for more than three of the five miles I ran last night. It made me a bit nervous. Luckily, I was able to fight the good fight and maintain a very sloooooow and steady pace for the Snug run and even found myself in a near meditative state of relaxation for part of it.

I’ve wanted just one beer all week but was able to continue my alcoholic abstinence and instead sipped on a tall, tasty glass of the ol’ H2O. In the end, all was just about as right with the world as it could possibly be. The best of friends plus one of my absolute favorite things in the world – the Irish Snug Running Club – equals a few laughs and clear head when I needed it most.

My guess on the rest of the nerve forecast leading up to the race? Tomorrow will include mostly sunny skies with a few dark clouds rolling in and out about mid day, a.k.a. feeling relaxed but fighting anxious butterflies in my stomach most of the morning. The late afternoon will bring beautiful temperatures in the form of excited energy upon reaching the race expo to pick up our bibs and bracelets.

Saturday’s forecast calls for cloudy skies and cooler temps as I focus on supporting the guys and do my best to fill their consciences with positive vibes for the Ascent, then run through my game plan for my own race while I wait for them to cross the finish line at the summit.

Whereas most meteorologists on news stations in Colorado are generally wrong, I have been pretty accurate. We’ll see if that holds true for this weekend’s forecast.

Today marked my official last training run. Tomorrow, Dakin, JD, and I head south for beautiful Manitou Springs - home to the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon - to see what our very measurable training plus our immeasurable grit and ‘go’ will amount to on the mountain. The next time you hear from me, I will have run my first Pikes Peak Marathon and my first marathon ever.

It’s been a great past four months of training and six months full of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ - and I’m not just talking about the trails – since you all first met me. Thank you for ‘running’ alongside me for it. Here goes nuthin’!

“You’ve got this. . .Lead with the heart.” I’ll see you kids on the flip side. . .

Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.

Motivate me!

Saturday included a drive up to the mountains for a weekend camping trip, an opportunity to test out my new tent and sleeping bag, good quality time with the best of friends slash running buddies, beer, and a long awaited date with the September issue of Runner’s World Magazine.

It was to be 24 hours free from any anxiety-ridden thoughts of the Pikes Peak Marathon, a day to relax and to sloooooowwwww dooooowwwwwn, something I’ve been trying to do but failing at miserably. The time in the mountains just over an hour away from beautiful Denver turned out being just what the doctor ordered, and the timing of the trip couldn’t have been more perfect.

A bit to my surprise, though, what I found in those pages while reading about running - and trying to forget about the race - made me feel the most relaxed.

Enter Lauren Fleshman, two-time USA Track and Field 5K Champion, 7th in the 2011 World Championships 5K (the highest American finish in history), and a member of six world championship cross country and track teams among other accomplishments, who, according to well-respected running scientific evidence, has run a 5K 35 seconds faster than should be statistically possible.

If her article title, ‘To Heck with Science,’ doesn’t give the gist away, the subtitle will: ‘Runners love numbers, but we can’t measure heart, grit, or passion.’ The article is great – Well written and engaging with a lot of personality that draws you in to the very last word.

She is absolutely right. You can’t measure aptitude or ability based on mileage, pace, VO2 max, or any other running related number. There’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with any of these and everything to do with what makes runners runners, something that can’t be quantified but most definitely qualifies those who ‘do’ from those who ‘don’t’ in the one sport I love most.

Having had to use thought stopping techniques a handful of times yesterday and today at work when it hit me that four months of training will all come down to the gun in a mere five days – down to one hand - and counting, I thought of Lauren’s article and thought a little self-motivation was in order.

So, I reflected on the validation I’ve gotten the past few months - the words of encouragement idolizing the abstract and immeasurable whatever it is – heart, passion, maybe just plain ol’ hard-headed obstinance – that’s running around in this little nerd in running shoes’ body.

Without further ado, I give you the most memorable commends I’ve received while training for my first ever marathon:

  • “Wow, you’re hard core,” said to me on a day I felt particularly sluggish and slow while trudging up a trail incline. Damn, I wonder what she would have said had she seen me on a good day!
  • “She must really be in shape if she can run up here,” said more audibly than necessary to the fellow hiker directly to the woman’s left; and that’s OK with me.

    compliment

    Good little runner!

  • “How many times are you going to run up this?!” I heard several variations of this on my second trip up and down the first steep section of Herman Gulch on the day I lost my car key.
  • “That’s impressive.” Had I had the breathe at the time, I would have replied, “If you think this is impressive, you should see me spit!” Instead, I painfully gasped a “Thanks.”
  • “You’re a beast!” ‘Nuff said.
  • “You look younger and younger every time I see you! How do you do it?” OK, so that one has nothing to do with running per se; but it came from a running buddy. That still counts, right?
  • “You’re fast!” Not as true this year as in the past. Still, I’ll take it!

I’m not sure of exactly what this says about me as a runner, but I’m hoping that not being able to assign any numbers to it might help my numbers when I cross the finish line on Sunday. Guess we’ll find out if that’s true soon enough. . .

Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.

Finito. Finally!

Last Saturday marked the beginning of the end. . .of training, that is. The end of the hard part of my plan for sure, and the rite of passage to the wonderful world of tapering. Yessssssss! It’s been an amazing summer in so many ways, but it’s been exhausting at the same time. I’ve been looking forward to tapering for what feels like quite a while.

One more hard run, and you’re there!

“Hard” for this run didn’t mean our typical 2,000ish feet of elevation gain. Instead, our hard run last weekend meant a long distance between 10,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level. One thousand feet of elevation gain might not sound like much compared to where we’ve been in the past few months; but at that high an elevation to begin with, you will feel ever bit of it. And I did.

It was pretty amazing, really. I was shocked at how I could go from feeling perfectly fine and enjoying a beautiful trail for the first time one instant to feeling my quads burning and out of breathe the next after a few steps of even the slightest incline. Ugh, so happy this is the LAST one. I don’t know how much longer I could do this!

Had I been getting enough oxygen to my brain at any point on the trail, I might have remembered how many times I said this to myself. I didn’t.

After a handful of mosquito bites apiece for Dakin, JD, and I; listening carefully for mountain bikers flying down the single-track trail between the sound of your own deep breaths; and, of course, views that make you say “Oh, wow” for just a hair over six and a half miles and just under two hours and forty minutes out then back, I was done.

Absolutely gorgeous. That is all.

Absolutely gorgeous. That is all.

This run was a tough one. Elevation training’s no joke, kids! Plus, it was my fifth day of running in a row – not typical but necessary last week. This one whooped my behind, no doubt; but I still felt pretty good about it in the end.

When I got back to Dakin’s car, my legs were pretty well tapped OUT for the week. And as good as that tired feeling that comes with a strong finish of a week-long self-imposed mini running boot camp can be, the mental sigh of relief and subdued smile that spread across your face when you realize that you’ve earned the right to enjoy the rest of the weekend without running another step feels even better.

The hard part of my training was officially over. FINITO. All that’s left are plain ol’ miles at what should feel like a good but relaxed pace. I have pretty much done all I can to physically train for the Pikes Peak Marathon at this point; and that was worth striking a pose – in my new shorty short shorts, no less - to remember:

DSC06125

Just in case you were wondering, you can’t get much more ‘Colorado’ than to run the Colorado Trail while wearing a Colorado tee.

And, now that the real physical part of my training was over, it was time to start doing some serious mental prepping for the race. The second I start thinking about how insane it is to climb and to descend a fourteener for a first-ever marathon attempt truly is, I get a little nervous. Mental prep? Ha! That’s where the real training starts. Can’t I just run Kenosha Pass again? That might be easier. . .

Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.

Who wears short shorts?

Fair readers, I am getting bold in my old age. Bold, and I just plain ol’ don’t care about a lot of things that used to bother me. About exactly two years ago, I bought my first pair of three-quarter length running tights – for my first Pikes Peak Ascent. I’ve worn them only during marathon training when I felt OK about the idea of tight clothing. They have become one of my favorite running accessories.

A little over a year after that, I bought my first pair of tight running pants that I actually intended to wear on a regular basis. I feel best wearing them when in good shape and feeling OK about the idea of tight clothing. They have become one of my favorite running accessories.

About two weeks ago, I bought my first pair of. . .wait for it. . .what I call ‘shorty short shorts’ – spandex running shorts, bike shorts, “spankies” like the ones volleyball players wear. You know, the ones tons and TONS of girls wear to run and to work out and look totally comfortable in. Yeah, those.

Who wears short shorts? Apparently, now I do!

Sidebar: Remember this stuff?

nair

Yeah. Totally doesn’t work. OK, back to the topic at hand. Ah-hem!

I have entertained the idea of a pair of shorty short shorts for a while now, and have even tried on a pair here and there for at least the past eight months. Believe it or not, I finally found a pair that doesn’t make me gag at the image staring me back in the dimly lit dressing room mirror of one of various sports equipment stores.

Ironically, I chose to buy these after a weekend of pigging out – near completely throwing all self-imposed dietary restrictions in preparation for the big race out the window. Note: I would not recommend this tactic - Not the best idea for your running or general self-esteem.

But hey, they were on sale! And, if I was at all thinking about wearing them for the Pikes Peak Marathon this year – and I was – now was the time, because time was running out. OK, I’ll take them; but I’m keeping the tags on until I decide whether or not to keep them.

Then, last Friday morning, I made a rash decision and. . .cut the tags off the shorty short shorts. It was official: They were mine. To stay. OK, it’s now or never. Put on your ‘big girl pants,’ a.k.a. shorty short shorts; and give it a ‘go!’

So, I wore them to work out with Ryan and his wife, Jess, Friday morning. Didn’t say anything about my perceived insecurities over showing so much leg and wearing what felt like very little clothing on the lower half that they did actually cover. Just wore them. Correction: Not only wore them, but let go of any insecurities and OWNED them.

Then, I wore them for a seven-mile jaunt from my new apartment to and around Cheeseman Park and back Friday night after work. Running in them was different than a core and strength workout in them. I wasn’t too sure I liked them for running at first; but after about a half mile, I was back to not only wearing them, but feeling like I belonged in them.

Then, I wore them on Saturday’s long run to see how they held up on the trail. If I was going to contemplate wearing them for the marathon in two weeks, I had to give them a real trail test run. Aaaaaand I owned them. Again. This time, no questioning them, not even for a second.

Who wears shorty short shorts? I do! In just a few short days, they have become one of my favorite running accessories. Huh. Wonder if that cute guy at the Snug will notice me ‘owning’ them. . .

Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.