In the starting corral of Sunday's Twin Cities Marathon, Shannon, a mother runner friend, and I huddled together in the brisk 28-degree air, trying to find a patch of sunshine to stand in. Flanked by downtown buildings, I envisioned the mother runners I knew who would be along the race course, as well as the natural beauty that awaited.
The first few miles went by in a settle-in blur. There were a few more short climbs than I expected, but I was able to settle into a pace of about 9:06, which would have put me under 4 hours. Instead of having a hard-and-fast time goal, I had a range--from 3:59 to 4:08. After standing at the race expo for the past two days, I knew in my slightly weary bones that I didn't have a 3:59 in me. But the pace felt good, and I had more pep in my step than I had expected.
For me, the race really began in earnest near Mile 3, when we seemingly left the city behind and entered an autumnal wonderland of yellow-, orange-, and brown-leaved trees flanking one lake after another. The TCM bills itself as, "the most beautiful urban marathon in America," and I soon realized why: Thanks to a vast network of parkways, bike/pedestrian paths, and wide boulevards, the course was like running through a majestic park instead of a city. For the next few miles, I tried as best I could to drink in the lake vistas. The only thing that made it feel "urban" was the amazing number of spectators. Our local pals--JoAnn and her posse of awesome St. Paul moms, in particular--had told us there would be loads of locals cheering, but I didn't believe it until I witnessed it. It was uplifting and fun.
One spectator I had my eyes peeled for was Alana, a mother runner we met at the expo. I'd taken her up on her offer to lend a helping hand, so I'd given her a nuun table to put into a bottle of water. (I'd opted to stash my GUs in my vest pockets, and just pick up water bottles along the route.) The bottle hand-off at Mile 9 went seamlessly, and I continued on without breaking my stride.
I don't have many standout anecdotes over the next 10 or so miles: On training runs, I've almost perfected the art of putting myself in a zen state while running, and the scenery, sunlight, and vibe of the TCM helped immensely. Even as the race was unfolding, it felt like I was moving through a tube of autumnal colors spliced with rays of dazzling sunshine. It felt like work, yet also like being pulled along on a conveyor belt. I know I saw Dimity and a bunch of mother runners at Mile 15, yet already it's a blurry memory. (I recall Dimity saying she ran 1:24 in the 10-Miler, which gave me a boost.) I rarely looked at my Garmin, running instead by feel (another intangible "skill" I honed on training runs). Perhaps I should have have focused more on the numbers on my wrist, but I felt like I was pushing myself enough. I was intent on staying strong--and not backing down or giving up--at any point during the marathon.
For me, this marathon was like a 20-mile training run with a 10K race at the end. It was in this final 6.2 miles--after crossing to the St. Paul side of the mighty Mississippi--that my racing-drive kicked in as well as where my race memories sharpen, starting with connecting with Kristen and a bunch of Moms on the Run members at the aid station at Mile 20.6. As planned, Kristen handed me bottle of nuun and a bagel. I shouted out, "Moms on the Run RULE!" or something equally inspired and continued chugging uphill.
This is the part of the race that folks describe anywhere from "a steady incline" to "major hills!" I'd side with the "steady incline" folks, and it actually felt good on my hips to be climbing rather than churning out more flat miles. Around Mile 21 was the most memorable interchange with Dimity and our gaggle of gals--lots of photos and a smack on the arse from Dimity. (I'd specifically told her not to "pat" me on the back during the race as she can pack a big swat. But she couldn't help herself--then, as I ran off, she felt compelled to yell out an apology of, "I smacked you on your butt!" To which I yelled back over my shoulder, "I know!" At the time, it seemed hilarious.)
The incline went on for longer than I had anticipated, and my tunnel/zen vision really came into play from Mile 22 on. As much as I'd planned on soaking in the beauty of the grand homes along Summit Avenue, I didn't shift my focus from the road--and the runners--ahead of me. I started picking off folks I'd been following for miles--a guy in a tank that said, "John" on the back. A younger woman in funky green-and-blue patterned capris. A woman in a flamingo-pink tank top. The mantra I'd come up with specifically for this race--"Stay strong on Summit"--was on a continuous loop in my head. Then, at one point, over the strains of Nicki Minaj's "Va Va Voom" I clued in enough to realize I was hearing Dimity's voice--and, there she was, cycling along the sidewalk, yelling the same words at me. "Stay strong on Summit, Sarah!"
Near Mile 24, I high-fived my posse of supporters--and realized that if I was going to make my cutoff time goal (4:08), I had to put the hammer down. My playlist was planned perfectly: Taio Cruz and Travie urged me to go "Higher," and I started pushing even harder than I had been since entering St. Paul. All along, I'd told myself that when the exertion got really hard, I wanted to embrace it, not back away from it. And that's what I did. I told myself to just keep pushing until I saw the Mile 25 banners. Once I saw those leaf-festooned markers, I told myself to keep driving until I saw the soaring Cathedral of St. Paul, which would signal the finish line wasn't too far away. I was caught by surprise by the half-mile climb from Mile 25 to 25.5, but as I passed more and more people slowing and walking, I reminded myself how hard I'd pushed up a similar sucker-punch hill at the Big Sur Marathon.
At last, I reached the promised downhill to the Capitol, and I churned my legs even faster. I surged toward the finish mats, and rejoiced when the announcer said my name. Yet I didn't allow myself to look at the face of my Garmin for nearly 15 minutes after the race: As proud as I felt at my effort in the final 10K of the race, I knew I'd be disappointed if I missed my time goal window. Finally, when I reached our appointed meeting spot--V for Verweij (our friend JoAnn's last name--and also the first letter of "victory"), I allowed myself to look down at my wrist. There it was: 4:08:39. My pride beamed as brightly as the golden autumn sun.
Jack later texted me that in the final 2+ miles of the marathon, I'd averaged 9:01, nearly 30 seconds faster than my overall average pace.