I had made two attempts in 2010 to achieve a Boston Marathon qualifying time, known in running circles as a BQ. I gave it my all and failed. Ten minutes too slow on the first try, five minutes on the second. In my pursuit I grew to hate the track workouts, the tempo runs, and the numbers game that’s part of the search for speed. If I continued down this path I was going to burn out and eventually hate running itself. I turned my back on Boston and never made another serious attempt at a BQ. I told myself it wasn’t important to me anymore. It wasn’t entirely the truth but it helped ease the disappointment of letting go.

In 2011 the Boston Athletic Association announced tighter qualification standards starting with the 2012 race. Times were reduced, the 59 second cushion where you could exceed your time but still qualify was eliminated, and rolling registrations where the fastest registered first were put into place. It was no longer enough just to beat your time. You needed a buffer to beat the cut off. For 2015 the cut off was -1:02 minutes from your qualifying time. In 2014 it was -1:38. When I had heard of these changes I felt like my window of opportunity had closed and getting into Boston moved even farther away from reality. I didn’t want to put myself through that again.

But as I was training for Javelina last year I noticed myself getting measurably stronger and faster. I was using a Pfitzinger marathon training plan to give structure to my mid-week and ignoring the prescribed weekend runs for ones more suitable to 100 mile training. It was September. I was six weeks out from Javelina and feeling a bit at loose ends.

“Marathon-pace run 18 mi w/ 12 mi marathon race pace”

Those were the words on the printed page. They seemed innocuous enough. I hadn’t done a marathon-pace run since 2010. I had no idea what my marathon race pace would even be at this point. So in true logical fashion I just picked one, one that would get me just under my BQ time of four hours, a pace of 9:05 minutes per mile. Why not I figured. I finished the 12 mile segment with my out-of-thin-air pace and it didn’t feel like a huge struggle. I was stunned. I was more than willing to pull the plug on the effort if anything didn’t feel right but I was fine. That’s when the gears started turning.

Is it possible? Can I BQ now?

Three days later I signed up for the Napa Valley Marathon. At the time I didn’t know why I chose to do this particular workout but I know now that I was searching for an answer to a question that still whispered in my ear. Napa Valley was going to be my “A” race for early 2015, my first BQ attempt in five years, but I had to put it in my back pocket for the time being. I had to get through Javelina first.

Discipline

Three weeks before Napa Valley I had the Jed Smith 50k, the first race with my new team, Pamakids. Training had been going well and I was eager to test myself. I wanted to try something that I hadn’t done before, a progression run, where I would start easy and progressively get faster. The looped nature of the course gave me the structure to put this plan into motion, six loops to drop my pace from an easy long run training pace to marathon race pace.

Jed Smith post race
Hanging out with my Pamakids Team. Photo: Chris Jones

Where my mind went my body followed. Early on the challenge was to stay at those easy paces when my legs were fresh. Later it was to stay calm and focused as fatigue and doubt began to set it. I hit my paces and got faster on each loop just like I wanted. Jed Smith was a huge confidence booster. I had the legs and my mental game seemed to be on point.

Maybe I can do this.

It’s Show Time

I wasn’t wearing my typical plaid button-down tech shirt for the race. It’s something I’ve been doing for awhile and probably the subject of another blog post. No, I wanted to feel like a shark. Sharks don’t wear plaid. They wear dark colors and graffiti dragons on their arms and orange shoes. I was anxious. Being cold and shivering only added sharp edges to my emotions. Then I saw The Hat coming towards me. I’ve likened it to a strange sea creature and it resides atop the head of my friend, Penny. Whatever nerves I’d been harboring seemed to disappear in the warmth of her hug and smile. If you ever get a chance to waltz at a start line wrapped under a mylar sheet with a mad Irish woman I highly recommend it as a pre-race ritual.

Sea Creature or Hat?
Me, Penny, and the Sea Creature on a chilly morning. Photo: Penny Macphail

The original plan was to divide the marathon into three parts and start at a 9:09 minute per mile pace for the first ten miles, then 9:05 for the next ten, and finally 9:00 to the finish. This would give me a 3:58 hour finish time. When I crossed the timing mat at the half marathon point my split was 2:01 hours.

What I hadn’t counted on is that races usually run long due to inaccuracies in commercial grade GPS and my inability to run perfect tangents even when I’m trying. Mileage creep held such little consequence in the kind of racing I’d been doing in the last five years that I’d forgotten about it. It was a huge mistake in this game of minutes and seconds I was playing when I had so little margin for error.

NVM Splits
My race data: negative split, marathon PR and BQ all rolled into one.

I was holding steady at 9:05 as planned but some quick math made me realize I needed to go faster if I wanted any sort of buffer against the BQ cut off. The course was already running 0.15 miles long. By the time the race was over this number could double or more. An extra quarter to a third of a mile in distance for me would translate into an additional 2-3 minutes of time.

The red flags went up and I started to panic. I was going to run out of real estate, potentially overshoot 4 hours and miss the BQ time in its entirety. I made a move to drop the overall pace of my second segment down to 9:00, eventually even sneaking it down to 8:59. I could gain a bit of time with this pace but any faster and I felt I was risking an epic blow up during the final 6+ miles. I could take a chance on being reckless later but not now.

Be calm. Be patient. Stay focused.

I hit mile 20 and knew the final miles were going to be difficult. There was no way around the mounting discomfort I was feeling. The time for calm and patience was over. In my previous BQ attempts I had nothing left when I reached this point in the race but this time I had an engine that could respond when I pressed on the gas pedal. To make it manageable I decided to split the last part into two segments, 4 miles then the remainder to the finish. I dropped my pace down to 8:50. That pace for 4 miles this late in a marathon just seemed nuts to me but it was time to start taking some risks and I thought I could do it.

I can’t.

Keep it together.

I CAN’T!

Keep. It. Together.

At the mile 24 marker it was time to pull out all the stops. It was “hang-on-for-dear-life” pace. The number didn’t matter anymore (8:33 it turns out). I just had to go as fast as I possibly could, leave nothing on the course. Two and a half miles and a blankness washed over me. I was in survival mode. I saw Patty and Ray, at least their presence registered. Inside I was absolutely thrilled to see them but all I could muster on the outside was a weak wave of my hand.

Almost Done
Running like I stole something. Photo: Patty Osorio-O’Dea

Three corners to navigate and I crossed the finish line. I looked at my watch, 3:58, but I didn’t know if that was 3:58:00 or 3:58:59. I couldn’t think clearly enough to find where the seconds were displayed until Patty showed me. 3:58:02. My initial joy gave way to worry. I needed to find the results from my timing chip. That’s the one that mattered. I followed Patty and Ray around like a puppy dog. We got soup for me and some juice. We wandered around the finish area looking for posted results and finally found a large crowd gathered in front of a wall. I squeezed and nudged my way in holding my breath until I found my name. 3:58:00 on the dot.

I did it.

The Little Engine That Could

The Napa Valley Marathon is a great race. My sole motivation was time. I would have run in a windowless white room if that would have helped me achieve my goal. But instead I got to run in a race that has a refreshing grass-roots feel. It was a pleasure to have a small field of runners with plenty of space to make your own, to move through the pretty countryside of countless vineyards and wineries, to have your own drink bottles staged for you at aid stations of your choosing. I’d run this race again in a heartbeat.

3:58 BQ Time
Note to self – courses alway run long. This was nearly my undoing. Photo: Patty Osorio-O’Dea

The week before the race I read a blog post from 18-year-old ultra runner Ford Smith. He’d recently won the Black Canyon 100k and was pondering the definition of an ultra, one of the considering factors being time. “Even on the slowest end, a road marathon is only 4 or 5 hours.” It was not exactly inspiring reading just days before my race where going sub-4 was endgame after months of hard work. Still, I couldn’t get that riled up about it. While that statement lacks perspective I can’t really argue with it from a purely numeric standpoint. I was running my race, not his, and comparison is the thief of joy (Theodore Roosevelt).

Coach Jack Daniels puts runners into three categories. The first group has been gifted with great natural ability and driven by high internal motivation. The second has the ability but little motivation. Finally the third was not born with raw talent but is highly motivated. I fall squarely into the third category. I have no natural running ability but I’m durable so despite how mundane that sounds I can train consistently. What I do have in abundance, at least most of the time, is motivation.

Did I do enough to get into Boston? If the last two years are any indication then yes but you never know. I did the best with what I’ve been given. My best on Sunday gave me a two minute cushion on my BQ time, even if it was on the slowest end of a road marathon. I can now call myself a Boston Qualifier.

4 thoughts on “Chasing A Dream: The Napa Valley Marathon

  1. Wow – I really had no idea that you had this kind of speed bottled up in you! I always thought of you as a steady, well trained trail runner. Not a road speedster. This is wildly impressive! A HUGE congrats on nailing this dream! And not letting the Sea Creature throw you! (I was going to ask about the plaid shirt, but sporting a Dick Collins shirt at a road race is pretty epic all on its own.)

  2. Hi Laura,
    I am truly sorry if I offended you by saying insinuating a 4 hour marathon was slow on my blog post. First off, its not slow at all and secondly I was just trying to add evidence to my argument and maybe I reached too far. It was not my intention to offend anybody, and your right in that I lacked the perspective to understand fully what I wrote. I amended my post. You clearly worked very hard and accomplished what you set out for, which is amazing. Congrats on a great race and qualifying for Boston!!! Happy trails!
    Ford

  3. Hi Ford,

    You did not offend me. I was was probably taken aback at first. But while the goals and standards we set for ourselves may be vastly different I'd wager in our own way we work just as hard toward them and I realize that.

    Thanks for the comment and the congrats! I can't figure out how my little race report crossed your path but thanks for stopping by. I'm still riding a post-race high. Best of luck in your future races. 🙂

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