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Why Tough Races Rule

As we're finishing up our third mother runner book, we're going green this summer and recycling some of our blog posts. This post originally appeared on our site on April 7, 2013

A feeling of pure triumph at the finish of a Hell-ishly hot Boston Marathon.

With Boston Marathon a mere week away, my thoughts turn back to that epic race. I’d worked for years to qualify, narrowly missing my age/gender cutoff by roughly a minute not once, but twice. Third time was the charm, and I eagerly anticipated the 26.2-mile journey from quaint Hopkinton to urbane Boston. Then race day dawn with a ferocious heat, predicted to make it the hottest running of the race in its 116-year history.

The sun beat down mercilessly as hordes of runners walked to the corrals; I was sweating freely in my, ahem, hot pink Another Mother Runner tank before I even crossed the starting line close to 11 a.m. The one saving grace was low humidity, but the air was still thick and stagnant. Near Mile 8, I had to quell a panic attack as it suddenly felt like I was running in a massive oven. I had tossed out any time goals as soon as weather forecasts told of the heat, so my revised goal was merely to finish without walking. (No disrespect to folks who walk in races—just not my M.O., except when GU’ing.) In addition to slowing my running pace to prevent overheating, I dumped water on my head at almost every mile, ran through every misting station, sought out the shade of buildings lining the course, and gratefully accepted ice from generous spectators.

It was a tough, ragged slog, but I fared far better than many racers around me. Through Newton and Brookline, in the final 10K of the marathon, it felt like I was flying by four out of five racers—despite running at a speed 90 or more seconds slower than my usual marathon pace. My finish time was more than a half-hour slower than my previous slowest marathon, yet I didn’t care: I had triumphed over brutal weather. In the days and weeks that followed, my Boston pride flourished as I talked to many participants whose finish times were 60 to 90 minutes slower than their usual 26.2 results.

Maybe this is hyperbole, but I view my Boston experience as a “triumph.” In a sea of athletes to whom I felt utterly inferior (I had only squeaked into the race with a barely qualifying time), I pulled out a stronger-than-expected-given-the-weather finish. That, to me, is one of the things that makes a tough race so much more rewarding. When I reflect back on races, it’s not the icing-on-the-cake, everything-went-as-expected ones I play in my head. Instead, it’s the races where wild cards got thrown my way, yet I dealt with them.

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“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” --Maya Angelou
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” --Maya Angelou

The half-marathon on a blustery January morning, with copious rain blowing parallel to the flat roadway. Yet I kept my foot on the proverbial gas the entire 13.1 miles, trying to break 1:50. The 2010 Big Sur Marathon, when the unexpected hills in the second half of the race (the infamous one climbs two miles to Mile 12) tested my mettle, yet at Mile 15, I made the decision to push hard to the finish rather than be defeated. The Portland Marathon six months later when rain fell in sheets and the face of my Garmin fogged up, leaving me running by feel from Mile 14 on. (That was the 26.2 that got me into Boston, by the skin of my water-logged teeth.)

In running races, as in life, you never know what you’re made of until you are tested by adversity. Sounds ripped from a Hallmark card or a needlepoint pillow, but that’s why tough races rule.



We'd like to know from you: What was the toughest race you've ever run?


32 responses to “Why Tough Races Rule

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  2. I ran the Green Bay Cellcom marathon in Wisconsin in May 2013. We had a very mild winter, I was able to get outside for most of my long runs but the temps were low and ideal for running. Race day it was in the low 60’s (I think) at the start which was perfect. By mile 4 I was sweating and I realized that it was humid. I was cruising along and felt awesome, I was making great time. By mile 15, I noticed a lot of people walking and decided that I must be around a group of people who follow Jeff Galloway’s plan. At mile 17, I stopped to use a Porta-Potty since I was trying to hydrate and couldn’t hold it. I train to not stop for bathroom breaks because nothing is worse than the down pour of sweat from stopping and then going into a super hot porta-potty that has been sitting int he sun, for some reason I always struggle getting my shorts back on. Anyways, from mile 17-18 I started to feel the heat and the sun. The course flags never changed showing that the weather conditions were unfavorable so I figured it was in my head. Then I remembered my mom, my dad (who was fighting colon cancer and I was running the race for him) and my 2 year old son were waiting at the finish. I had a choice, I could continue to run and push through but not make it to the finish or I could give in and walk for the first time ever at a race and not hurt myself. At mile 18 I started doing a walk/run interval. Those last 6 miles were horrible! I ended up passing a workout buddy at Mile 25 who usually finishes 45-60 minutes before I do and he did not look good. I finished about a half hour after my goal time and the water works began. I wasn’t happy that I finished, I was happy that it was over and I didn’t have to run anymore. I also made the decision to wear a tank top with a saying about dedicating the race to my dad fighting cancer, the tank top was cotton so I wore it over a moisture wicking shirt, that was not one of my smarter ideas especially in the heat and sun!

  3. I have just started running for maybe four months when I sign up for my first half. Yeah I know! Two months later I was there, I’ve trained and follow every advice from the pros. My time before the race was 1:49, so I was aming for 1:45 .. Again, yeah I know! I get there and spotted a race pacer, the time I was looking for (1:45) It was great! Until mile 6, I started feeling horrible, my legs wanted to shut down. I kept telling myself, “you’ve run more then 6 mile almost daily! Calm down! I can do this! So I stopped to hydrate myself at the water station and started to feel much better, When I saw them …. My pacing group flying away! Yeah it hurt. But I kept telling myself “it’s your first half, it’s okay”! At mile 8 we get some GU, I just swallowed that as fast as I could and ran fast to the next water station. I kept feeling horrible, at mile 10. I also looked like I had just jumped inside of pool. Then I noticed, this young girl next to me, crying and walking, I was wondering why she was crying. Then I reminded myself why I sign up for this race in the first place, because I love running and now racing, the way my body it’s being challenged with every step I take. That’s when I decided to have some brutal fun (I only had 3 more miles anyways) so I sprinted the hills, fought against the windy breeze, form form form it was all I was thinking of. And then to my surprise, the crying girl that was walking, was next to me! Decided to push even harder. We finished together at 1:50:03 not bad for my first half. Did I mentioned that I was dehydred and it 100 % humidity at virginia beach…. Yeah I know rookies!

  4. I was running a very small race “Dash on the Ditch” 10K in a rural part of our city. My sister was with me. It was her first and my second 10K. I had used TLAM 10K Own It! plan. It was a charity race I was doing to honor one of my students (preschool, blind, multiple impairments). I was ready… At mile 1 the hay fever hit. I couldn’t breathe and had to stop and blow my nose FREQUENTLY. By mile 2 I had a reallly bad attitude because most people had passed me. At mile 3 I had turned it around and decided my sweet student would enjoy the walk on the ditch and all there was to see. I had decided to enjoy being LAST and running just in front of the “guy on the bike” who informed me HE was last. Moving right along when I got a nose bleed! I asked the police for tissue-they had a paper towel. It was better than using my shirt. Feeling discouraged but thinking only of my student to get me to the finish. My sister ran back to find me…I was almost there! The finishs time was horrible BUT I got a medal in my age group. Yeah for REALLY small races!! and we are still laughing about it 8 months later.

  5. The Shamrock 8K last year. I was doing great with training up until four weeks previous, when my then-3-year-old was diagnosed with cervical scoliosis. My training hit a wall, and the only run I did was a tear-stained 6-miler at the coast the weekend before. The distance was TOUGH. I dressed too warm, the sun was out, and around mile 4, I wanted to give up. The only reason I didn’t was because a very tall man dressed as a leprechaun stirred me up and ran with me to the finish line.

  6. Gettysburg North Vs. South Marathon. April 2014

    My training for this race was a little lackadaisical. I ran with a group on Saturdays for the first time, which was great to get through long runs, but it was a Winter training cycle, which I have never done before, and if wasn’t for having a Boston dream, I would say never again to a spring marathon. I was very proud of myself for running the entire marathon, but the rolling hills of Gettysburg really got to me. But it was a gorgeous day and my dad (water boy) rode his bike beside me, which was awesome!

  7. Baltimore Half Marathon- It was my 3rd year running it and I had just found out I was pregnant. I had not even been to the doctor yet but had already signed up and had been somewhat sticking to my training plan. I had stomach issues the entire race and stopped at what seemed like every porta potty I laid eyes on. Every mile was a struggle and I could not stop thinking about the tiny little babe in my belly. On top of the stomach aches and pains Baltimore is full of hills. My only saving grace was that my Brother in Law was running with me. We gave ourselves a goal of finishing in under 3:00 sure enough we crossed the finish in 2:59!

  8. Thanks for the Maya Angelou quote, love it!
    Toughest was my only marathon, which I ran injured. But there are also 2 halves that I ran while having my butt kicked by mother nature. I will never forget the COLD and Wind on a race around an island in the Detroit river. Later that year my sister and I ran the Sleeping Bear Dune half. Of course the park was closed for a government shutdown 🙁 but the almost all up hill run was made more difficult by a torrential downpour. We made it, not sure how slow we were, but we made it.

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  10. The tough races prove who you are, mentally speaking. I’ve always found myself to be much more mentally tough than I am from a physical standpoint. Your Boston race from last year sounded amazing – good for you for powering through!

  11. Sarah–thank you for this! I was spectating at last year’s Boston and saw you on the course. It was inspiring. What is also inspiring is your last note about adversity. I am attemping to BQ later this year and have my doubts some days…in my head I know it will be hard but I also know that given the right conditions (not just weather but more so the universe coming together kind of conditions) I can and will do it…one day. If not this year I certainly hope soon. But thanks again for the reminder and inspiration. As always your ladies rock!

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  13. I ran my first full in Chicago in Oct. I finished in 4:52, under my 5 hour goal. So proud! My second full was supposed to be Disney in January. I had a foot injury just after Thanksgiving. That training cycle was drastically different from the first. I got the ok from my Dr. to keep running even though it hurt. Long story short, my longest post-injury run / walk was 7.5 miles and the longest total workout was 2 hours. I didn’t give up and I finished that full marathon! With the help of my BRF of course 🙂 Almost 1 full hour slower, but taking into account the temperature differences in the 2 races, and the recommended slow downs my pace was about the same. I think I am more proud of that second marathon than I am the first. I didn’t know how strong I was! Now, I just need the shirt.

  14. My first Half Marathon (just over two months ago) was on (paved but not cleared) trails through a foot of snow with another couple inches falling during the race. Many marathoners dropped back to the 1/2 given the conditions. I too gave up all time goals and just resolved to finish. It was an amazing experience and I prize my Groundhog medal all the more because it was such a tough and memorable race.

  15. I literally wrote about this today. It was just a 5k race, but it was disappointing and everything that could go wrong did. However, it’s like you said, I learned more from a not so fun/bad run than if I had sailed in under my PR. Good luck next week.

  16. Preach on sister friend!!!!!! My God awful worst blisters I have EVER had taught me that I will not let ANYTHING keep me from that marathon finish line. That I WILL keep going and finish running bc there was NO WAY I was walking across that line. =)

  17. I hope that my upcoming marathon will amount to this kind of triumph. Not necessarily on race day but this injury training period that will help me get to the start. 🙂

  18. I just ran my toughest half marathon — for the last 8 miles I fought terrible GI issues. Ran/walked my way to the finish, trying to run as much as possible b/c walking only prolonged the agony. At the finish line I pushed my way through the crowd and sprinted to the first port-o-potty I could find. I felt so awful that I actually SAT DOWN in the port-o-potty. Ugh. It was brutal, and took 12 hours for things to calm down. But, surviving that race just 2 minutes shy of my PR is one darn huge achievement!!

  19. Yesterday I ran my slowest 10k race in years. But I repeated prefontaine’s mantra: run a race to see who has the most guts. I have been battling walking pneumonia since February, getting in 1 or 2 5-mile runs a week, no speed workouts or consistency to speak of. But my husband signed me up for this race and I had to gut it out for him and my 3 girls waiting at the finish line. I ended up winning (!!!) and know that repeating my “gutsy” mantra made me not only succeed yesterday but fine-tuned my mental toughness for hundreds of races to come. Until yesterday I had no idea how important those tough races were. Thanks for the excellent post!

  20. Thanks for this post, SBS (I love the Maya Angelou quote). My last marathon was CIM in December, with its monsoon winds, and your post has recast the way I think about it. Usually I recall it with disappointment because my training had gone well and I thought I could BQ–wasn’t to be. But I stuck it out and finished, and despite the weather it was still my third-fastest marathon of six. I will also try to keep what you say here in mind when I try again in Eugene in just three weeks.

    Good luck to all of this year’s Boston runners!

  21. You handled the Boston heat with much more aplomb than I did in a similar situation, so no pride in that tough race for me, really, but I’ll remember this post the next time the stars aren’t all in alignment for a run!

  22. Ah yes – my last half was horrid – it was warm and then got cold – everything from my hips down cramped…sobs as I crossed the finish line. I cursed I would never do any more (this was my 4th), but then the next Saturday came, 6 miles to begin training for my 5th half and it was a complete success…I ‘watched’ you Sarah as you crossed the finish for this race just as I watched you qualify (3 times). I had tears in my eyes each and every time. This BATR (bad ass teacher runner) loves and respects you.

  23. I ran my first marathon in 20 mph headwinds with near 90 degree temps at the finish line. It felt like a hellish blast furnace with fans turned on, but it made crossing the finish line all the more sweet: the race directors said it was the most brutal conditions they had ever seen for the race, and this was already a tough marathon (Sandhills) for even veteran marathoners. That made my next marathon seem so much easier (46 minutes faster) and helped me realize what a huge accomplishment my first was really was!

      1. Thank you, Sadye. It wasn’t until I ran Twin Cities marathon that I realized how brutal the first one was. I’m still glad I did it, despite the agony 🙂

  24. Kara that is so great! My Boston finish pic from last year looks just like yours – 2 hands raised high in the air, triumpahant! (And so happy to be finished.) Around mile 20 I took a GU I had been holding in my sports bra. By that stage of the game it was very warm and syrupy. I sucked it in, and it promptly projectiled right back out. I heard the crowd of spectators groan, and some man said “She’s seen better days.” The wheels fell off after that, I couldn’t keep track of the mile markers and kept asking the crowd “What mile is this?” But I didn’t walk, only b/c I couldn’t bear to make it last any longer than it already was, and I crossed the finish in a state of delirious euphoria. The tough races are the most memorable, always. And they make the best stories.

  25. I, too, ran Boston last year and like you I triumphantly conquered it. Of course, that just makes me more nervous for this year, but that is the nature of the beast. Can’t wait to just run and have some fun come next Monday – see you there!

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