A twisted ankle, overheated final 5K, and wrong-turn DQ turned three straight marathons sour for me to start the Fall racing season. All of that drama and disappointment made Sunday’s Outer Banks Marathon finish more special.
Failing to hit race goals can lead to more self pressure and self doubt — feelings I tried to suppress in North Carolina.
Going into the race, I had never run a Boston Marathon qualifier in the Fall. I entered October with high expectations, but instead of hitting my 2019 BQ right away, I had a series of frustrating finishes.
The Detroit Marathon was painful after I stepped in a crack in mile 7. Hot and humid temperatures turned into gale-force winds at the end to make the Motor City one of my worst races ever.
A week later I smashed into a wall of dehydration and overheating at Marine Corps Marathon. Instead of hitting a BQ in Washington D.C., I fell off pace for a 3:08. That finish was still my fastest Fall race, but I had my sub-3 goal in front of me before staggering the final three miles.
The most painful miss was in West Virginia, where I ran well (on pace for a 2:50 on a warm and humid day) and still failed. A wrong turn led to too many incorrect miles and a self-reported DQ.
Then, 28 days after my Detroit disaster, I lined up in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Outer Banks Marathon was a final chance at hitting my Fall 2017 goal — my last marathon of the year. I also grow a beard until I qualify for Boston each year, so I needed to run faster than 3:05 unless I was OK with growing out my facial hair until at least February.
With all of those thoughts swirling, we took off on a cool east-coast morning.
The course is set up for a fast race. It starts near Kitty Hawk Beach and weaves south through the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Preserve for the first several miles. Runners circle the Wright Brothers National Monument in Kill Devil Hills in mile 9 then enter a trail section in Nags Head Woods Preserve.
The trail section ends right before the halfway point, and the rest of the course is on paved roads through local communities until a long bridge from miles 22-24 leads to the final miles in Manteo.
My goal was to hang with the lead pack for the first few miles. I immediately realized that plan wouldn’t work. The eventual winner, who had won the previous year as well, averaged a 5:22 pace. And he was running faster than that in the first miles. Mile one clicked by in 6:08, and I knew I needed to ease back a bit.
I had 10 people in front of me, but no one really running my pace. So I decided to simply run my pace and not worry about the others.
The Wright Brothers Monument was spectacular, rising up out of the sand dunes. It was amazing to think that nearly 114 years before, Orville and Wilbur made the first controlled flight in that exact location. The trail section that followed was not as great. While I enjoyed the shade, cool air, and gentle rolling trail of hard packed dirt, I was completely alone. At one point, I thought I had missed a turn. I started panicking thinking back to the previous week. Then, an aid station appeared, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
A steep, sandy uphill led to a 7:10 mile 13, my slowest mile of the day. As soon as I exited the woods, I crossed the half-marathon timing station. My first half split was 1:23, and I felt fast with my feet back on pavement.
By that point, the day had warmed up enough for me to start dumping water on my head at every aid station. The sun was much higher in the sky, and the humidity started to slow me down. I flashed back to Marine Corps Marathon and started thinking about how I was going to overheat and miss my goal again.
I fought off the negative thoughts and refocused on each mile. That approach allowed me to stay steady. I kept my pace under 6:30 until mile 22, where the long bridge started.
“Stay on pace. Stay on pace.” I kept repeating those words. While I slowed slightly, I was able to keep my legs moving. Miles 22-24 were 6:36, 6:42, 6:32.
By that point I knew I could slow down greatly and still hit my Boston qualifier, so I was fighting off the urge to walk. I could have back off pace greatly and still finished under three hours. But the final miles became a mental battle to finish well.
While I didn’t speed up in the final two miles, I did stay steady. Mile 25 disappeared in 6:34, and mile 26 took just 6:28. Neither was far off my overall average pace of 6:26.
I crossed the line in 2:48:42, and a season of frustration lifted immediately.
Not only was Sunday’s race my first Fall BQ (my 10th overall), it was also my second fastest marathon ever. I missed a PR by just a minute and a half on a much tougher course. I also crossed off my 34th state in my 44th total marathon.
My finish showed me that I can keep improving with hard work. I have an opportunity to build on my current fitness and race even better this next Spring.
The Outer Banks Marathon is an incredible event with a beautiful course and great weather weather most years. The finish festival was amazing as well. Live bands cranked out southern and alternative rock, and volunteers handed out unlimited drinks and pulled-pork BBQ sandwiches with cole slaw and sweet potato fries. Other than the minor inconvenience of needing a shuttle to return to the starting line (the price you pay for a point-to-point race), the race was delightful.
Each time I lose confidence in my training in the future, I will think back to Fall 2017. I doubted myself at every turn and struggled through a lot of tough breaks. Racing two separate back-to-back weekends in a month probably didn’t help.
But I was able to get stronger and, eventually, hit my goals.
Next time you are down after a tough race, just keep moving forward. Feel disappointment, and let the frustration out. But then move on to the next run.
All we can control is the mile we are in.