State # 7: Ohio (AKA When Will I Ever Learn…?)

While Cincinnati’s  popular Flying Pig Marathon in May was the one that everyone raved about as being a total blast, it came at a bad time of year for me to travel and I decided to research other options for Ohio. In the end, I chose September’s  Akron, Ohio as my Ohio state race, due to the fact that it got incredible reviews and many running magazines had voted it for various awards such as best swag. But of course there WAS an ulterior motive behind choosing Akron, and that was only after I crossed the finish line would I earn THAT reward!

After Hatfield-McCoy came a LONG, hot summer of training, and it was pretty difficult. Summers in PA are ridiculously humid and hot, and if you don’t get your long runs in at sunrise, you’re in for a pretty miserable experience.  Hydration is so incredibly important, and heat exhaustion is a dangerous risk. I always had to carry a hand-held water bottle and make sure I was able to refill it; I usually made sure I drank water every other mile. Not only is it hot, but the trails are filled with bees, gnat clouds of Biblical plague proportions (I have run so many times with a gnat lodged in my EYE for several miles), snakes, snapping turtles and other fun critters. Makes you long for crisp Fall weather more than ever!

I also learned to love using honey as a training run fuel. It really worked great. Easy to consume and economical, honey is a simple, natural sugar with lots of beneficial properties that can’t be found in more refined sugars. It is even been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which is a plus when you are a distance runner that might have struggles with muscle and joint pain. So I would carry honey packets in a Spi-belt or keep a honey bottle in my car for a fuel stop and consume it directly from the bottle. Within ten minutes I always felt a positive boost of energy!

I decided to try something new for Akron. Now here is where the needle scratches on the record, the music halts, and heads shake in pity. As an experienced marathoner, I never, ever should have tried this new idea unless I tried it during a dress rehearsal run, but I did it anyway. While it seemed silly, I decided I would carry a honey bear on the race course. No expensive gels, but just pure, natural honey as a fuel whenever I needed it, what better fuel could I use to excel in a marathon?

I had high expectations of this race. I was ready to try to BQ again. I had good success with Hatfield-McCoy, a very difficult race, and Akron, while hilly, was nothing like that race in terms of elevation changes. I knew it would be a piece of cake and psyched myself up for a PR.

From start to finish, the things with this marathon that usually can stress us out were very smooth. Packet pick-up and parking were a breeze. I got a REALLY nice Brooks running jacket instead of a tech-shirt, and the expo was more or less painless except that they make you stay in line and go through the entire expo rather than just beeline to packet pick-up. Slightly annoying but really not that bad. We got to our hotel and relaxed for the night, for the race was the next day and we didn’t have a lot of time to sightsee or enjoy what we saw of Akron, which at first glance looked like a very nice mid-size city, much like Harrisburg.

Race morning we drove from our hotel to the start and expected horrible delays with traffic and parking. Again, this went without a hitch and we were pleasantly surprised that everything was such a breeze.  We stood in the dark waiting for the race to start, while I had my honey bear in hand. It was a cold morning, around 40 degrees, but there was a lot of enthusiasm in the air. The Goodyear Blimp hovered overhead and after the National Anthem the race began with a small fireworks display. Not Disney caliper but certainly a pleasant surprise! And we were off.

This race definitely went by in a blur, and I certainly couldn’t give you mile by mile descriptions, so I am just throwing in a quick paragraph from my marathon review: “The course itself was really never dull; I ran past the Firestone plant, through the lovely Akron University campus, a crushed gravel towpath on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, the refreshing Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens (one of my favorite parts) and a triumphant finish in Canal Stadium. The residential neighborhoods also had plenty of enthusiastic spectators, especially children wanting a high-five.”

Beyond the description of the course itself, all I can say is I started off way too fast (my usual arrogant blunder) and got slower and slower as the race continued. My first ten miles were a quick 8:10 mile clip, but soon I started feeling a tweak in my ankle and realized I had to swallow my pride and slow down or risk not finishing.  I slowed my pace, but soon ran into other difficulties.

I need to go back to why trying anything new on race day is never a good idea: the honey bear idea was a disaster. The temperatures stayed in the low 50’s and it was way too cold to get a sufficient amount from it when I needed it. It was stubborn and viscous and near impossible to consume.  Throughout the entire course of the race I don’t think I consumed more than 200 calories, almost half of what I usually consume. Everything seemed to be going wrong, I felt like I kept hitting walls, and the hills were bringing me to a shambling walk.

By the end of the race, I was spent and miserable. My tweaked ankle was bothering me, and the up- and downhills were murder on my knees. We had a final LONG downhill to get back into the city of Akron where a stadium finish awaited us, and every step felt like a railroad spike going into my legs. While Hatfield-McCoy’s rolling hills really worked in my favor for an awesome sub-4, this race’s rolling hills just made things worse. Chris was close to the finish line and saw me, and I think he could immediately tell that I was having a really bad race.

I finished in 4:15, same exact time as DC. My 8:10 minute clip turned into a 9:50. I was underfueled and taxed by the hills. Again, my overconfidence got the best of me. It was a crushing defeat.

I got an incredible goody bag from the Akron marathon volunteers, and while the food was 90% gluten-filled (and handed immediately to Chris to enjoy), the awesome finisher’s hat is something I still use to this day. It’s one of my favorites. The medal was also an incredible quality and it was nice to sit in the stadium for a bit, bask in the sun (even though it was only around 60 degrees), and enjoy watching the finishers.

Once we got back to the hotel, it was time to get moving for the next portion of our weekend, and my ultimate reward. A Five Guys burger and fries? Well, yes, but it’s even better than that.

Let the fanfare commence, we were  heading to Cedar Point!

For those of you who don’t know, Cedar Point is THE roller coaster capital of America. While it’s no Disney World, it still ranks up there with one of the best amusement parks I have ever visited. Even better, it was completely decorated and themed for Halloween, one of my favorite times of year. The weather was perfect and we really lucked out that we were able to go, so we drove to Sandusky, Ohio that afternoon and crashed in the hotel to recuperate for the next day. Initially I was wanting to go to the park that NIGHT…thank goodness we held off. Instead we got to the hotel and both slept a good 5 hours! Much needed recovery indeed.

The next day was spent hand in hand like little kids, riding terrifying coasters, going through haunted houses, and watching shows in the park. It really was a fantastic day. Sure my feet hurt and shins hurt, and I probably did far more walking than I should have, but it was worth it.

I loved the experience so much I’m hoping we can go there again after I run the Ann Arbor Marathon in June. Just keeping my fingers crossed for good weather!

Akron was the first of three marathons that I ran in the Fall of 2012 in order to qualify for the Marathon Maniacs. I can assure you that the next two go a lot smoother than this one did.

My Results
Official Time: 4:15:38
Overall Place: 726/ 1629
Sex Place: 202/ 649
Division Place: 33/ 111

Lessons Learned

  • I don’t know if I will ever get this right, but start conservatively and STAY that way. You would think after DC I would have known better, but nope, I went ahead and made the same mistake again and it cost me a lot of valuable time. Never start off too fast, and stay consistent with your pace.
  • Never, ever, EVER try anything new on race day. Ever. The honey bear, while economical, cute and a proven, effective running fuel, was a big mistake. I never thought about the fact that the temperatures would have prevented me from getting the much needed calories during the race, but I was VERY underfueled and wiped out from the experience. Luckily I now can use Honey Stinger gels, which are made of honey, water, a little salt and come in portable gel packets. Perfect for what I need and even in cold weather I can hold one in my hand for a few miles until it’s warmed up and can be easily dispensed.

When Life Hands You Lemons…Well, You Know the Rest

2013 has not been an easy year. It almost seems like, if something can go wrong, it will. The entire year so far has seemed to be this way. And it’s made me just a tad bitter about our present circumstances. Just a tad. I’ve shed some angry tears, felt the frustration well up inside me to the point of bursting, and I feel like I have to keep it all down and smile and demonstrate resilience rather than scream or break something.

Chris and I have a wedding anniversary coming next week; in years past we’ve celebrated and traveled to commemorate the occasion. We’ve so many wonderful memories in years past, whether it was a fabulous cruise with close friends and family, or a weekend away riding roller coasters in Busch Gardens. This year, instead, we are preparing for his second cancer surgery. No fun weekend away from home or any boisterous celebrating, but instead more of a somber cloud is hanging over our heads. The days are counting down, and soon things could entirely change. I think that I will likely never hear his “real voice” ever again, and while it may seem trivial to some, regardless, it saddens me.

In the Simpson’s Comic Book Guy Voice, all I can think is:

Worst. Anniversary. Ever.

But then I came to realize that we can’t always have everything go our way and exactly as we planned. While it would be nice, it’s not at all realistic. So we have to look at the things that we do have going right for us, and be thankful that we can wake up next to each other in a warm bed, living and breathing to enjoy another day together. Every day we can do that is truly a gift that should never be taken for granted.

Yes, life definitely isn’t perfect for either of us. I have my health issues, and he has his. But together we love, support and understand one another like no one else can.  And time and time again we have to remind ourselves with a simple mantra “It can be worse.” And this is true. And we have to think how lucky we are to have been together for this long, a lot of people aren’t this lucky. Chris has cheated death many times throughout his life, and yet I get to wake up next to him and feel a sense of relief that he’s still here with me, and hopefully will be for many, many years to come. Even if we have obstacles to endure, even if the cancer treatment is tough, even if it strikes back a third or fourth time, we will go through it together, and that is more than a lot of people have.

We came to the conclusion that no matter what the cost, we want to come out on top victorious. But the only way we can do it is united…as a team.  We cannot allow negativity to eat up every last shred of hope we have, but optimism and a positive outlook is the only way we can fight this.

So I want to pass this message along to you. When life seems tough, step back and make a list of all the good things you do have going for you.  Plenty of people look at what we’re going through and say “I don’t know how you guys are holding together”. Well, our attitude is, there’s no choice. So we have to take our present circumstances, move forward, and think about all the amazing things we are blessed with and smile.

Make a list…and keep adding to it. No one’s life is perfect, no matter what you might think, we all have our own albatross hanging from our necks. But beyond that, really step back and see what you really have and embrace it.

Take the time and make that list for yourself and hold onto it. Keep adding to it. Read and reread it. No matter how small the blessing is, it counts. I have to just keep reminding myself of this every day.

No Gluten? No Sugar? No Meat? What DO You Eat? Believe It or Not, PLENTY.

Since late April of 2011 I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I had to quickly adjust my diet to conform to a gluten-free lifestyle, and thankfully I was still able to have plenty of my old favorites: chocolate chip M&M cookies, cupcakes piled high with icing, ice cream, peanut butter cups…there was PLENTY I could eat and enjoy and I had no shortage of treats as long as I could find them gluten-free. Training for marathons was a breeze as long as I had plenty of carbs, and gluten-free carbs are plentiful if you know how to find them. Life doesn’t stop at bread and pasta, there’s lots of various options for gluten-free carb-loading!

Fast forward almost two years later. Chris is diagnosed with cancer for a second time, which was a devastating blow. We have no idea what could have caused the recurrence, but started seriously analyzing our dietary lifestyle. What could have caused the growth? What could have fueled the cancer? Are we to blame, or was it simply “bad luck“? Was I lazy in how I focused on our diets? We still ate things like French fries, processed foods, and plenty of sugary treats in the evenings for dessert. Chris still loaded his morning coffee with sugar, and had the occasional donut or non-GF treat outside of the home. While there is no definitive answer as to what caused the cancer to return, we decided that we needed to find ways to be proactive and combat it.

We learned that there could be a direct connection with refined sugar consumption and cancer growth. We also did a lot of research on what is going on with our food supply in general. To be honest, a lot of BAD stuff lingers in the average American diet. Trans-fats, refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, pink slime, chemicals and hormones in our meat, and food additives with names we can‘t even pronounce derived from things we DON’T even want to know about. In short, lots of garbage, and cancer absolutely LOVES garbage. It’s like a sewer rat that can plague our bodies and thrive easily if we continue to feed it. It‘s no wonder that obesity is at all all-time high, and that cancer is still running rampant like a kid in a candy store.

Weeks ago we decided it was time to change our diet, change our lifestyle, and fight this cancer a little harder. Some people thought eating gluten-free was hard enough, but try throwing no refined sugar, no high fructose corn syrup, and as little meat as possible into the mix. The very prospect had me stressed out and overwhelmed. It seemed like it would be harder than ever!

Surprisingly, it wasn’t!

Sure you go through sugar withdrawal: crankiness, insomnia, brain fog, exhaustion and cravings. But that only lasted maybe a week.  We cleared our cabinets of all the processed garbage and loaded them with more natural forms of sugar like honey, coconut palm sugar and agave syrup. We did a little more label reading when grocery shopping, if sugar is one of the ingredients, it gets put back on the shelf. This usually meant buying more cereals from the organic section and making more of our own staples at home. I have a simple coconut granola recipe that I make once a week, and we absolutely love it. We eat a lot more fresh produce and much less refined and pre-packaged foods, and are really starting to reap the benefits. We’ve both tightened the notches on our belts a little bit without even trying, and I have noticed my sciatic nerve pain has been slim to none, and this may be due to the fact that sugar increases inflammation (according to numerous studies).

So how can this be done? There are definitely tricks to making sure you have ample amount of variety in a diet of this caliper:

1) Access to a good produce market and farmer‘s market. Boy, do we not have any problems with that! I can spend $20.00 and bring home pounds and pounds of fresh vegetables and fruit. Most of our recipes involve lots of fresh vegetables, and I can buy things like a huge 40-ounce baby of baby spinach for around $4.00.  In springtime most towns have farmer’s markets that last until late fall, take advantage of them and see what they have to offer! If you think you can’t get through the produce fast enough, many vegetables can easily be frozen for later use, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach. Fruits can also be frozen to make into smoothies. Never a need to have things go to waste!

2) Brainstorm and make a list of meal ideas. I had no idea how we would eat less meat since it seemed to be such a presence in our diet, and started working on vegetarian meal ideas, and ultimately it really seemed like the sky was the limit! We had tons of options, and even could include condiments into the mix for flavor and ethnic flair. Places like Wegman’s have lots of different sauces for meals like curry, Italian, Asian stir fries, etc. and many of them are very low or free of refined sugar as well as gluten-free.

3) The less ingredients, the better the meal! One of Chris’ absolute favorite meals: a handful of gluten-free pasta, with lots of sautéed spinach, tomatoes, broccoli and asparagus, throw in a little olive oil, Italian seasoning, and a side of homemade gluten-free bread and olive oil, as well as maybe an extra veggie side, and you have a vegetarian feast made for a king. Another favorite is simply beans and rice with salsa verde and fresh avocado sliced on top, and a side of roasted veggies to make an awesome vegan dinner with loads of healthy fats.

4) Desserts are still something we enjoy, but instead of things like ice cream or candy, we’ll have homemade gluten-free granola with almond milk, or one of my favorites is just a rice cake with honey and almond butter (might as well throw on a few banana slices while you‘re at it).  It’s absolutely delicious! Even a good mandarin orange is a perfect dessert with the right amount of natural sweetness. Some nights we forgo dessert entirely, but when we do have it, we are very satisfied with the more natural choices. The cravings for hot fudge sundaes and chocolate candy are long gone, and I am sure we are doing our bodies and waistlines a favor.

5) Don’t shy away from healthy fat! Back in the 90’s, the way to stay healthy and lose weight was the constant promotion of low-fat living. The less fat the better, and you could make lots of different recipes with little to no fat, but plenty of sugar. Now researchers are realizing more and more that fat is NOT the problem, but sugar! Our main sources of fat are fresh avocado (try slicing one of top of a veggie egg-white omelet, it gives a flavor that’s incredible) and olive oil, and in the past while I used to be very nervous about generously using olive oil and other fats, I now realize that fat is NOT the enemy! The best fats to use are vegetable-based fats, so we usually stick to extra virgin olive oil, avocados, extra virgin coconut oil (gives some incredible flavor to baking recipes) and nut butters. I no longer pour the oil off the top of a jar natural peanut or almond butter, but stir it up and embrace the fat that I once shunned.

6) Be prepared to eat out a LOT less, and cook a lot more. Roll up your sleeves, because this lifestyle usually means a lot more cooking and food prep. I pack all of our breakfasts and lunches every morning before work, and dinners are also enjoyed at home 99% of the time. Unfortunately this is due more to the celiac disease, as cross-contamination is a concept that most restaurants with gluten-free options still aren’t quite grasping.  But cooking more at home means you have complete control as to what goes into the recipes, and that is a satisfying feeling.

Cutting sugar from our diets has truly been a positive change for both of us. We no longer have cravings for unhealthy desserts and sugar laden coffee drinks and cereals. Natural food tastes BETTER than ever, and this is coming from someone who has lost some of the use of his salivary glands from prior cancer treatment. A fresh mandarin orange is like eating a handful of sunshine. Fresh avocado has an incredible taste that we can’t even describe, but I think we are both officially becoming avocado junkies!

In the past when I met people who first learned I had celiac, they would ask “What can you EAT then?” and I’d respond with a grin “Nothing.” or “Not much.” In terms of the typical American diet of fast food and pre-packaged quick fixes, yes, this is true.

Then cut out sugar. It cuts your convenient choices down even more.  You definitely have to spend a lot more time in the kitchen with food prep and planning. You have to take more trips to the produce market and spend a little more time label reading.

But in the end, look at the benefits you reap. You eat clean, whole foods. Food tastes better. You feel more energetic once your body detoxes itself of what it’s depended on for so long: junk.

Treat your body right, and it will treat you right. It’s something you have to work on together as a team.  Give it a try sometime, you might just like it.

If you have any further suggestions, comments or recipes, feel free to comment!

Happy eating!

Cancer Will Not Destroy Us, Only Strengthen Our Will To Fight

There is not, at this time, much more I can say about my husband’s second cancer diagnosis. We are still working hard at fighting the growth with diet and clean living, and he has a surgery planned in two weeks to remove the cancerous growths. After that time he will undergo cancer treatment, which I am unsure of at this time what mode of attack the oncologist thinks is best. There is also a very good chance this surgery will affect his vocal cords and permanently change his voice, something we weren’t expecting.  He could possibly end up sounding like the Christian Bale version of Batman, or Clint Eastwood. We couldn’t help but nervously chuckle at the prospect because of this Batman parody video that we oftentimes referenced in years past. But the possibility of severing the nerve in his vocal cord is a very strong possibility this time, and something we will all just have to get used to hearing if the damage is unavoidable. But this pretty much sums up our resolve at this time:

I recently ran my 13th marathon, state #10, at Virginia Beach this past weekend. I was emotionally drained and did NOT want to leave him at home while I went to this event. I felt like it was a selfish thing to do on my part, but he insisted that I go. He didn’t want us to put our lives on hold, but to keep LIVING as if nothing was going wrong. He wanted me to kick ass, earn that medal, and wouldn’t allow me to stay home even though I was emotionally distraught at the idea of leaving him at home that weekend while I road-tripped it with my cousin. But he has always been my biggest supporter, my biggest fan, and he wouldn’t allow me to stay home; he wanted me to continue to reach for my dreams.

I finished the race (a race report will eventually be written, but in a nutshell, it was a pretty sucktastic marathon), and throughout the course I thought of him, what he was going through, and what is to come. It make me come to tears many, many times. Marathons are emotional enough on their own without extra variables to step in and take over, and honestly I just felt like an absolute mess.

I wore my F*ck Cancer patch on my Marathon Maniac singlet, and several people high-fived me and encouraged me throughout the race. They knew and understood its message all too well.  One gentleman told me God Bless as he passed me on the racecourse, and  tears stung my eyes as I graciously thanked him. I was practically sobbing as I hit Mile 26 and saw the finish line; Chris’ strength, love and support was the fuel that I needed to fight my way to the finish.

Cancer affects every single one of us. No one can deny that they know someone who currently is fighting cancer or who has lost the battle. Anyone who thinks their life is hard or sucks needs to realize that it could be so much worse than it is; I look at him, and still see him laughing, smiling, full of hugs and enthusiasm, and he has cancer. And yet he STILL thinks his life could be so much worse than it is, that alone is such an incredible thing to see. He’s strong, resilient, and I know he will kick cancer’s ass again…hopefully this time for GOOD. Time will tell, and I promise to provide updates as they come.
In the meantime we will continue to .

We won’t let cancer destroy us. It will only strengthen our will to fight.

State #6: Kentucky (Running Through Feudin’ Country)

The Hatfield-McCoy reunion marathon was by far one of my favorite races I have ever run to this day; the race director, David Hatfield, was a direct descendant of one of the feuding families. The History Channel miniseries had made it more popular than ever that spring, and the race had more runners from all over the country than it ever had in years past.  The race motto was “No Feudin’, Just Runnin’”, and the crossed shotgun logo made it very clear that this event was going to be one for the books!
The Weather Channel listed it was one of the World’s 15 Toughest Marathons, so I had zero aspirations to run this one fast. As you can see from the elevation chart, it’s not exactly flat or fast, and the hills are far from gentle:
That enormous spike in elevation is when the runners get to climb Blackberry Mountain, and sites of the famous Hatfield McCoy feud are all along the course. Not only was the course scenic, but you ran through small pieces of history!  They even assign you a “family” and divide the runners into two teams: Hatfields and McCoys. Whichever team had the best overall finish times would win the feud that year. It looked like a total blast.It took place within two gorgeous states, West Virginia and Kentucky; the runner could decide which state this counted as if they were a fifty-stater. I decided this would count as my Kentucky state, and while I am really wanting to return to West Virginia to run Freedom’s Run, I am fairly certain I will be returning to run Hatfield-McCoy in 2014 since I have a few friends that are dying to see this course for themselves, so it may just become my West Virginia state medal as well.After some research I realized there was zero chance of me finding food in the remote area of West Virginia where we stayed. I packed an enormous cooler with tons of gluten free fare, was assured by the hotel they could accommodate my needs for a fridge and microwave, and we were on our way. There was zero chance of a glutening before this event!

The day before the race Chris and I did a self-guided Hatfield-McCoy driving tour and stopped at various sites of the feud. Since the course followed much of this same route, I saw what I was in for: massive hills to climb, and very steep drops to hold the brakes as I crested the top.  The course was marked with spray painted blue “hill-billy footprints” (their words, not mine) on the pavement so you wouldn’t get lost on the course. It was that remote.

The Race: First Half
This was by far the smallest marathon I had ever run. The race had about 510 runners, mainly 2/3 being full marathoners.  There was very little in terms of glitz and fanfare, and it was exactly my kind of race.  The race started on a cool foggy June morning in the parking lot of a grocery store; after the race director said a prayer  he let off a shotgun to start the race.It was a great start to the morning.  The air was really cool and crisp, lower humidity than I expected, and the temps were maybe in the low 60s.  Not ideal race temps but still very pleasant, it was almost like a training run.I resolved to start off slow and hold back, and overall I think I did a good job.  My first mile was 8:38 and the second was more like 8:20, and soon I kept that pace for a good portion of the first half.  I met some folks from Indiana and we chatted amiably; there was a great group of runners around us, everyone was friendly and chatty, no PR pressure since a BQ time wasn’t even possible because the course was not certified. Everyone wanted to ask where the other was from, runners were smiling, laughing and having a great time.  Lots of Marathon Maniacs and 50 State Club members were on the course, and those kind of participants mean that this is truly a race to run simply for the love of running.

The friendly folks from Indiana passed me eventually, as I was trying to stay slow.  The course was pretty uneventful in the beginning, you run on Route 119 where cars are passing, the course was never really closed off to traffic entirely, and eventually you get off the road to a more rural setting.  Lots of people sitting on their porches cheering us on with dogs barking in unison to our footfalls. We were TRULY in the South, but it was GREAT.  So many friendly people!  Beautiful scenery, lots of sparkling brooks and rivers, lots of hills, rocky cliffs and fields, just absolutely gorgeous.  You really did feel like this was God’s country. The air was so fresh and clean, it was such a nice respite from big city races.

The waterstops were plentiful to the point where I couldn’t drink at every stop or my stomach would have burst, but it was wonderful.  They always had water, ice and gatorade, and there was one stop for every single mile.  Some stops were even themed for the Hatfield and McCoy feud, which really brought out a laugh or two.  EVERYONE was encouraging, sweet and couldn’t be friendlier.  I grew to love the south REAL fast!

By the time I got to the Blackberry Mountain hill, I knew it was serious.  I pretty much just kept quiet and marched up it, never once walking, and I even passed the people from Indiana.  Being from hilly Pennsylvania has its advantages!   I got to the top and managed to hit Mile 7 in maybe an hour and change.  It was tough but definitely not impossible.  Once you get to the top there is a 900 foot elevation drop and it is SCARY steep.  You really, really need to put the brakes on your speed or risk toppling on your face.  And it was LONG.  I felt like we went downhill forever!

I ended up running the rest of the half portion with a nice first-timer from Kentucky.  He did well, and marveled at how anyone could run 26.2 miles.  He was really friendly and made me feel “fast”, LOL.  I showed him some points along the course that my husband and I drove on the day before, you pass many points that marked the feud between the two families.  I also got to see several Shetland ponies that people put out alongside the course for us.  It was really neat, just so rural and pretty, and unlike any race I ever ran.

The finish line for the half was in a very small historic mining town in Matewan, West Va.  This town is somewhat small, and there were just a handful of spectators, but ALL of them had smiles and cheers for us.  This race was nothing like anything I had ever run, expect maybe Harrisburg (that course was just as sparse, but could not even compare in beauty).  I said goodbye and congrats to my running friend from Kentucky as he ran through the finish chute for the half marathoners and I moved on.

The Second Half

I am not kidding when I say I pretty much ran the rest of the race alone.  It was like a training run.  I passed several people and we sort of nodded and cheered eachother on, but it was starting to get warm and the sun had burned away any of the lingering humidity.  The shade was sparser and it got a little tougher, but I felt like I still had some fuel in the tank.

This race had a lot of firsts: I actually ran into several dogs just sort of wandering the road.  That was a little scary, as I had been bitten by an unleashed dog several years ago and it sort of spooked me whenever I saw them roaming alone.  But they just looked at me curiously and I ran past without even a bark from them.  The course then ran into probably some of the rockiest trail I had ever run, which was a point of dismay and complaint for a lot of runners, but not me!  I absolutely love trails!  I see it as a dance with the terrain, you have to know exactly where to put your feet in order to keep the right pace.  You really, really need to watch it or risk tripping on a root or rock and falling on your face.  It was great though, and lasted several miles.  I loved that part, but I read in years past that it could get VERY muddy.  Luckily it was a dry summer so the course wasn’t very muddy at all.

The trail course in the woods suddenly ended and popped me out onto…a golf course!  I was literally ON the green!  I missed my sharp right hand turn and, laughing, ran on the green until I could safely get down the hilly terrain to the pavement.  Luckily there were no golfers or I could have easily ruined their game.  Then you get to cross a wooden swinging bridge, straight out of Indiana Jones.  It would have been fun running alone across it, but there were two other guys with me and we really had to watch our step, it was like running on a wooden trampoline.  We whooped and hollered like little kids and had a blast getting across, but I won’t lie that it was a little scary!  Especially at Mile 18 when you are JUST starting to wear out.

The remainder of the course was pretty uneventful.  I passed the McCoy house where a lot of the elderly descendants were on their rockers cheering us on from the porch.  One little old lady saw me and yelled at the top of her lungs “You GO BABY!” It really made me smile. The water stops came just at the right times by this point.  One stop had kids handing out full bottles of water and powerade, so I grabbed a water bottle and ran with it for several miles so I didn’t have to stop.

At the tail end of the race, there was ONE last steep hill around Mile 23…in full sun.  I audibly complained with a laugh “You have GOT to be kidding me!” and started trudging up it.  I suddenly realized there was NO way I could run this, I was just too worn out.  I walked it.  And I wasn’t the least bit ashamed.  I still had a sub-4 time within my grasp and felt OK with it.  Getting to the top of the hill there was a spray painted message to the runners on the road “Last hill, we promise”.  Ha ha.  Gotta love a sense of humor this late in the game.

The walk actually rejuvenated me a bit and I continued on.  I knew once I hit Route 119 I would be home free, and by Mile 25 I saw I had around 15 minutes left to make sub-4.  I was going to make it!  It actually made me feel better and I sped up and encouraged the people I passed that were forced to a walk.  Trust me, I don’t blame them, the conditions, while not horrible, were not great.  No shame in walking as long as you can finish.

Finally the finish was approaching, I was back on 119 and passed fast food joints, strip malls and lots of cops directing traffic to ensure our safety.  I crossed the state line from KY back to West Va. and entered the final stretch.  My husband Chris saw me and took pictures.  I was all alone and I saw him motioning enthusiastically for me to RUN!  I was very close to a sub-4 and I think he really wanted me to hit that goal.  I crossed the finish line jubilantly, getting to high five actual Hatfield and McCoy descendants (holding their shotguns and wearing 1880’s era attire), the crowd was cheering, and I got an ice cold towel draped around my neck, a medal, and a bottle of water all within 20 seconds.  The finish line spread had so much fresh fruit, as a celiac I was thrilled to see I could actually enjoy the food!  I grabbed a slice of watermelon and basked in the fact that I was DONE, and in the shade.

We had to wait a bit for our awards, each finisher gets a Mason jar with their place number on it, so we had to wait for the guy with the laptop to come and let us know how we placed.  I talked with several other runners to pass the time, and it was amazing how many of them saw me, and told me I looked strong.  It was encouraging!

Finally I got my place, 43 out of 261.  Ehhh, not bad I guess? I came in 13th out of 117 women, which was really a morale boost!  The girl who came first for my age group was from Colorado.  Ha!  I knew there was a trick to it, made sense.  High altitude training obviously makes you faster and more resilient at sea level.  They announced that I placed  third out of 13 women in my age group! I got an award and it was the first time I ever won ANYTHING and I was grinning ear to ear as they handed me my plaque.

So who won the feud that year? I was made an honorary McCoy for this race, and even with my finish time, sadly the Hatfields took it by storm; I am hoping I can someday return to be an honorary Hatfield…after all, with a guy like Devil Anse on your side, how can anything go wrong?

My Results

Finish Time: 3:58:37
Overall Place: 43/261
Sex Place: 13/117
Division Place: 3/13

What I Learned from this Race

  • Never sell yourself short! I had pretty low expectations for this race, since it was so hilly, and in Kentucky and West Virginia in JUNE, a lot of things should have gone wrong for me that day after I fell apart in DC, but instead I exceeded ALL of my expectations. The ones where I assume I will PR oftentimes end less favorably, and then the ones that appear so difficult sometimes end up being the best races. You just NEVER can tell.
  • Walk breaks can sometimes really give you a little break that you need to keep the stamina going; I oftentimes walk through water stops for just a few seconds to give myself a break, and that might be all I need to recharge my battery. I don’t like to walk up hills, I usually attempt to run up them and give it my all, but this race I had to walk it or break down, and in the end it was just what I needed for that final push.
  • This small town race was by far one of my all-time favorites, and I am really drawn to smaller races of this caliper. There is so much heart and enthusiasm, and we felt so welcome (in fact, we were invited inside the historic McCoy home where the log cabin walls still stood inside the structure) and really, truly enjoyed the visit. Definitely looking forward to my next visit, where hopefully I will see my name on one of the welcome back signs along the racecourse!

“State” # 5: Washington, D.C.

My next marathon took place in our Nation’s Capital: the Rock N’ Roll National Marathon in Washington D.C. The race took place in mid-March, which in the Northeast can mean early spring or dead of winter. Wind is usually a major factor. You never knew if the ground would be covered in ice and snow, or mud from spring thaw. It was a tough call to decide to run this race, but I managed to snag a discounted registration fee and decided it was now-or-never to run D.C.

Although we had a very mild winter, training wasn’t especially fruitful. I never managed more than 17 or 18 miles for a long run, holidays and travel got in the way of a few weeks’ worth of serious training, so while I was confident I would finish, how well remained to be seen. I wanted to PR badly, and tried to see if it was even possible to qualify for Boston this time around. All I needed was to run 15 minutes faster than my Harrisburg time and finish in 3:40. How hard could that be?

Chris and I arrived in D.C. on a rainy Friday afternoon, fighting traffic and aimlessly searching for parking at the Armory where the expo was taking place.  Luckily, packet pick-up was effortless once parking was established. That night we walked around the streets of D.C. and shared a gluten-free pizza at Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, a highly recommended place to get your gluten-free carb load on – just be sure to secure a reservation!  The one major disappointment we had was that the National Mall, a fantastic green space surrounded by museums and monuments, was closed for renovations. Instead of the awesome “Nation’s Front Yard” for young and old alike to enjoy, it was a muddy dug-up disaster surrounded by police tape and barriers.

The Race: First Half

Race morning was everything I expected: massive crowds cramming into the Metro to get to the start at the D.C. Armory, enormous lines for the porta-jons, the possibility of missing the start in my corral. Fortunately we allowed ourselves ample time to get to the start; although it could have been a logistical nightmare, it was fairly smooth sailing.

Waiting in the starting area a woman noticed my CDF Team Gluten-Free shirt and started to chat with us; it turned out she also had celiac! We chatted amiably, swapping stories of our diagnoses,  recommendations for places to eat and foods to try. While I never feel joy in meeting others who endure celiac, it’s definitely a breath of fresh air discover a kindred spirit when you spend so much time feeling incredibly alienated or misunderstood.

The race started and we were on our way.  It was a great morning for a race! The crowded corral spread out comfortably and the runners were fairly cheerful. The first half of the race takes you through the downtown D.C. area, past memorials and the Smithsonian Museums. Despite the Mall being a major eyesore, it was still wonderful getting to run past famous memorials.  Viewing the sunrise with the Washington Monument in the foreground was definitely a Kodak moment.

I was running a quick clip, averaging 8-minute miles; my brain was abuzz with thoughts of qualifying for Boston – it was all I could think about. I flew past hundreds of runners feeling on top of the world. The streets were slightly rolling, and the sun was winking behind tall buildings; initially the course was cool and breezy, a perfect day to PR.  Several spectators saw my CDF Team Gluten-Free shirt and cheered, which was a total morale boost. By Mile 7 I was feeling a little tired and sore already, but ignored the signs. I was on my way to qualifying and nothing would stop me!

A good percentage of runners were half-marathoners and we split off from them around mile 11; it was quite obvious once this happened, as the crowds suddenly thinned out, the bands grew quieter, and the streets seemed wider. The battle was truly on now, as we headed out of the streets of D.C. to cross the Anacostia River into our second half of the race. You could practically hear the crickets.

The Second Half: A.K.A. Crash and Burn

All I could think with every step for the first half of the race was Boston.  All I could think of for the second half of the race…when is this over? Sun. Concrete. Thirst. Heat. So many factors suddenly drained my body’s stamina almost to a screeching halt. The scores of people I had passed in the early miles of the race suddenly passed me by the hundreds.  That PR I was reaching for was way out of reach as valuable minutes piled onto my positive split time.  My pride was shattered; I threw away any hopes for doing well and just needed to cross the finish line. DNF (Did Not Finish) was not an acronym in my vocabulary. I WOULD finish.

The second half of the race was more or less a wasteland.  There was zero shade. Very few spectators. Bands were few and far between. The crowds were there for the half marathoners, which is very typical of Rock N’ Roll Races and a common complaint. The half marathoners greatly outnumber the full marathoners, so once you split off from them the course is far less interesting, sparse, and more industrial.

Dehydration truly took its toll as the temperatures climbed into the low seventies with 75% humidity.  The open and bare sections along the Anacostia were a no-man’s land with no end in sight. The one saving grace was getting to run through a tunnel where the temperatures were at least 10 degrees cooler, with a lovely breeze and a DJ playing music to get us through. It was an incredibly welcoming and short-lived break, but just enough to give us a little boost to keep going.

As the miles passed, my morale weakened. I shambled a few minutes, jogged a few. It was like Vermont Revisited, but this time was different. I hadn’t been glutened, I simply took off way too fast and saved no gas for the second half of the race.  I didn’t think about heat and humidity, didn’t think about the fact that lack of shade would devastate any semblance of stamina. I think it was something many of us didn’t realize until it was far too late.

As we approached the finish line, we saw that many of the “halfers”,  proudly wearing their medals, coming out onto the course to cheer us on in the final miles; to be honest, it was a wonderful confidence boost. Despite the pain and agony of the concrete streets combined with the heat, the enthusiastic spectators, runners and non-runners alike, almost brought a tear to my eye. More people shouted out for CDF Team Gluten-Free, and some even thanked me for being on the course representing people like their mother…sister…self.
As the finish line loomed I could hear Switchfoot, the headliner band, playing their final song (gotta love that the headliner concert started 3 hours after the race began, so only the much faster marathoners would get to see ANY of the show…again, cater much to the halfers? I think yes.), and I did my best to give myself one final push towards the finish line with just under a 4:15 finish. As I shuffled and gratefully accepted my medal and water bottle, others around me all had the same sentiment: that was a tough race, many people finished much slower than anticipated (some by a good hour). I chalked it up as a bad race, nothing more. I simply earned my “state”, didn’t set any records. You can’t win them all no matter how much you psyche yourself up for a PR.

A marathoner approached me in the finish area, and it turned out she also had celiac disease. It was a day full of surprises to encounter so many gluten-free friends! She was very excited to meet someone else like me, and we chatted for several minutes about the race, lessons learned with celiac, and our plans for future races.

I came to realize that, in the end, getting to share the same experience with others that endured celiac was more rewarding and valuable than crossing any finish line.

My Results:

Finish Time: 4:14:58
Overall Place: 1313/ 3155
Sex Place: 443/ 1423
Division Place: 58/ 191

What I Learned from This Race

  • HOLD BACK YOUR PACE. I ran WAY too fast to start this race. And you know what, I still did it in a future race in Ohio, and could kick myself for it. You CANNOT bank minutes even if you think you can, it’s a foolhardy way to run a marathon and I never recommend this approach EVER. It’s pretty much a guaranteed crash and burn.
  • I cannot run Rock ‘N Roll races anymore. I just can’t. They are too crowded, expensive and overhyped for my tastes. I have heard horror stories about events in other cities, and I have had my own bad experiences at other races they’ve hosted. Chris thinks I am being a snob, I think I just prefer smaller events with less flair.The less there is in terms of runners, flair and fanfare, the more I enjoy it.

My Dream of a Sub-4 Marathon Finally Comes True

State # 4: Sweet Home Pennsylvania

After Colorado Springs I decided to run one more marathon to round out the year, so I chose my state capital of Harrisburg, PA.  It was a smaller race that received overly positive reviews from runners, and seemed to come at a good time of year.  My girlfriend M. decided to accompany me as my sidekick for a girl’s weekend, so we loaded the car and headed west on a beautiful November morning.  The conditions looked ideal for race day, no rain in the forecast and cool conditions.

On the way down we decided it was crucial to stop at Hershey’s Chocolate World; Hershey has a great amusement park loaded with roller coasters, water park , and a zoo but the park was closed for the season.  Luckily the factory tour is open year-round and we decided to stop since M. had never experienced it before. The tour was much like the Small World ride at Disney World: educational, fun, but with free chocolate samples at the end.  We stopped in the enormous gift store and loaded up on treats, my favorite being anything involving peanut butter.  It was a bit of a headache to sort through which products I could have, but I successfully managed to walk out with a bag of gluten-free treats.

We lunched at a neighboring Red Robin, and to my surprise they were very accommodating to a gluten-free diet: they even had a dedicated fryer for their bottomless steak fries.  It had been months since I had eaten French fries, so this was an enormous treat for me.   They were very careful to take my needs seriously and the experience was awesome. The manager came to the table to talk with me about their careful food preparation and put me immediately at ease. Since my visit they have adopted the use of gluten-free buns for their sandwiches, but I must admit even the lettuce wrapped sandwiches were pretty great too!

Upon arriving in Harrisburg, we checked into the hotel and walked to the waterfront area where the packet pick-up was located. To my amusement, the swag bag was loaded with not only my race number and shirt, but MORE Hershey’s candy!   We spent the afternoon slowly walking around until sunset, enjoying the cool weather and interesting architecture. I  enjoyed feeding the squirrels some of my Payday bar, which was almost like a scene out of Night of the Living Dead…one squirrel cautiously approached me, and suddenly more and more quietly appeared out of nowhere, surrounding us and begging like dogs for treats. I’d never seen squirrels this tame and used to people, they practically snatched food right from my hand.

My prior research had shown that there was a 97% gluten-free restaurant in Harrisburg called The Wild Tomato.  The menu, was, by far, the most amazing I had ever seen.  Not only did they have gluten-free pizza, but they had pasta, garlic bread, and countless other options.  M. was excited to try anything new and gluten-free, and we ordered a feast worthy of a (gluten-free) king to be delivered to the hotel room to share.  I carb-loaded well that night, and managed to get a good night’s rest to top it off.

The morning of the race I had my typical race morning fare: a toasted Udi’s bagel with peanut butter and honey, a banana, and 2 cups of coffee.  How on earth did I manage a toasted bagel? Well, here’s a little tip for you when you want toasted bread on the road: bring a toaster bag (try a kitchen store or Amazon) and simply use the hotel iron.  I promise that you will have freshly toasted and safe bread every time.  Sure, it might LOOK silly, but it sure beats the gluten-laden buffet area that most hotels provide.  It’s a trick I use time and time again.

Race morning was crisp, cold and beautiful.  I had no expectations of how I would fare, but I stuck to a high mileage training program that maxed out at 72 miles a week.  I felt pretty good after having been gluten-free for six months, I had gained a few pounds back and felt strong.  M. and I chatted amiably with some of the runners as we lined up and stretched, waiting for the start.

The race gun went off after the National Anthem was recognized, and I waved farewell to my friend as I took off, with absolutely no idea what this race would bring.

The Race

Marathons are interesting.  No matter how well-prepared you are while training, race day conditions can make or break the race. Heat, humidity, wind, rain, terrain, all of these variables add up and either hurt or hinder your performance.  There are no guarantees. These are just the OUTSIDE factors, let’s not forget your own inner variables: hydration, nutrition, proper training, rest. If any of these things are off-balance, even by a fraction, it can bring your successful start to a slow crawl by mile 18. Then there’s the mental factor: you have to start off conservative, not bolt right out of the gate. It’s not a 5k, where you can go full throttle, but 26.2 miles have to be spread out so you can run comfortably the entire way. You have to listen to your body and make decisions depending on your goals: do I try to Boston qualify and possibly injure myself or do I want to finish a little slower so I can begin training right away for the next race? It’s an inner struggle, and sometimes you have to swallow your pride in order to make the right call for yourself.

With the Harrisburg Marathon I had no expectations at all. I wanted to enjoy the race and finish it, so I didn’t train properly for any sort of speedwork or a set finish time in mind.  When the race began I simply enjoyed a fall morning run.

The miles easily ticked by in the gorgeous autumn morning; the city of Harrisburg was quiet and there were not a massive amount of spectators on the course.  The course was more or less flat and took us through the quiet streets as the sun rose overhead.

Conditions couldn’t have been more ideal. It was cool, the sun was up with few clouds, and the course was flat and fast. I felt good. It felt good to run and be with other runners. You truly feel alive on the racecourse: this is the moment that you have been training for all those weeks and months.  It’s hard to describe until you experience it for yourself.
Hitting the halfway point during the race I saw that I had run my best half marathon time: 1:52. I was thrilled.  My past half marathons, at best, were around 1:55. Holding what I considered to be a steady and conservative pace, I was quite happy with this time. I chatted a bit with runners around me, we shared stories and words of inspiration. While the course was nice, going through some residential areas and a college campus, other sections were pretty unremarkable: we ran through some industrial areas with semi-trucks roaring past plants and factories. We even hit some course gravel trails, which I don’t think were meant for running, but for construction vehicles. Not exactly the most scenic course at times, but the final miles made up for that. Even the Disney marathon goes past a sewage treatment plant…every mile can’t possibly be memorable.

As the miles continued, I only had one snag, which was having to run up several steep hills through miles 18-20. They were in a beautiful park and the foliage ablaze with fall colors was a far cry from the gated industrial facilities, but the hills almost brought me to a walk. My 8:30 pace was likely brought to a 10:30 minute mile in those two miles, and of course it is right around the time where marathoners “hit the wall”: this is the point where if you were to stop, you just might not be able to start again. It’s best to push through that wall mentally and force yourself into a second wind.

Despite the hills, I was well on my way to run a marathon in less than 4 hours. And as the race continued, I realized it would become a reality. The final miles were run alongside the Susquehanna River, a gorgeous backdrop to a lovely fall morning.  The colorful autumn trees reflected upon the river’s surface like a fiery watercolor painting, as we ran back into the main section of the city.  I was elated with my pace, and encouraged each runner I passed that the end was in sight.  The final miles of a marathon really do feel like a group effort, as you pass others (or others pass you) you spread words of encouragement and strength to them to keep it up. It’s easy for well-meaning spectators to tell you you’re almost there, but to hear it from a fellow marathoner going through the same trials, it seems a little more powerful.

The final half mile along the canal involved running up a short hill to run across a steel bridge to the finish line on City Island. A quick glance at my watch showed I had plenty of minutes to spare, and I ran across the bridge with roaring crowds on both sides to a victorious finish. I threw my arms into the air with a flourish and screamed “Sub-FOOOURRR!” and cheered with the crowd. Nothing felt better. A dream I thought was a mere wish was realized that day.  I finished in 3:55.

M. was there with a hug and lots of enthusiasm. I couldn’t wait to call Chris and share my good news. And what better way to celebrate a sub-four than with another burger and fries? Rob Robin was on the way home after all!

My Results

Finish Time:  3:55:53
Overall Place: 242/ 698
Sex Place: 60/ 248
Division Place: 12/ 45

What I Learned

  • Taking it super easy the day before the race is crucial, and this can be tough if you are in an area with lots of walking and things to do. Save it for after the race if you can; I find my legs appreciate a good lounging around the hotel room kinda day with minimal activity. While M. and I did some exploring, it wasn’t the usual kind of mileage I would put in on a normal vacation day (Chris and I sometimes have walked 8-12 miles a day easily when on vacation in a big city like Tokyo or London). Take a nap, have a lazy afternoon, rest, hydrate and eat just a little bit extra. On the days leading up to the race I would eat things like sticky rice and potatoes for snacks a little more instead of lower calorie and low-carb snacks like fruit  or almonds.
  • Carb-loading should be done smartly. I don’t overload and gorge myself with food, but I definitely eat more things that I would be more conservative with on most days like candy or treats to build up a small calorie reserve. While each marathoner has different meal plans leading up to more morning, I avoid too much roughage like raw veggies.  The Wild Tomato provided an amazing spread that was mainly carb-based: roasted potatoes, pizza, baked ziti and garlic bread (with some awesome Hershey’s candy for dessert). Not extremely balanced and super healthy, but it provided exactly what I needed to do well on race morning! My diet is very, very balanced with lots of fruits, veggies, healthy fats and lean proteins, but race week a lot of those rules go out the window.