What do you do when everything goes wrong early in a race? I faced that question Sunday at the Coeur d’Alene Marathon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. My plan fell apart immediately, and I was forced to fight multiple mental battles starting in the first few miles. I learned a lot about mental toughness, however, which led to my first ever overall win.
Going into the Coeur d’Alene Marathon, I felt I had a chance to compete for a top spot. My training has been solid, and looking at the finishing times over the past several years gave me some confidence. The weather forecast wasn’t great — high of 83 — but everyone has to run through the same conditions.
First off, Coeur d’Alene is beautiful. The lake is magnificent, and the town earned its reputation as a pretty resort area. My airbnb room was .25 miles from the start/finish line, so my morning routine and warmup worked well.
When I lined up, however, I felt completely unprepared. My legs were heavy, and my stomach was churning.
The gun went off, and one runner shot out. He was running at least 6:10 pace for the first two miles. My original plan was to stay with the leader from the gun and see how long I could hold on. Quickly I pivoted to simply trying to settle into my own pace.
My first two miles were 6:22 and 6:27, so not out of my comfort zone normally. But something felt wrong. My legs locked up, especially my right shin and hip flexor. The camber of the road and not enough prerace dynamic stretching most likely caused the leg issues. As I reached the second aid station right at the end of mile four, I knew I needed to stop for a bathroom break. My stomach issues would have gotten much worse, and my leg was screaming for a break.
So I stopped. I gave up my place in second, and I lost a minute and a half in a port-o-let. My brain immediately started sabotaging me. “You were stupid to think you could place in this race,” I thought.
Three runners passed me right as I stopped. And there were another three ahead of me I could see (about 45 seconds to a minute ahead). I was in eighth place. “I won’t even get an age group award,” I thought. After stretching out my right leg for about 10 seconds and mentally kicked myself, I started running again.
As I started back up, I didn’t have the same leg pain. My stomach felt much better. But I was defeated. I started writing my race review in my head. My focus was on how I needed to get much stronger mentally.
The course was a double out and back with a nasty hill starting at mile four — so I got to run up and down it twice from both directions for a total of four times.
We hit the turnaround at mile 6.5 on the first loop, and I marked everyone ahead of me. The leader was four minutes up. The group first group of three was about 1:30 ahead, and the next group of three was 45 seconds in front of me. Instead of thinking pitiful thoughts and writing sad stories of what could have been in my head, I decided to try to catch a few people. That approach worked.
Halfway up the hill on the way back, I picked off No. 7. Then there were two guys running together. San Diego has made me a much better hill runner, so I wanted to catch them before the top of the hill. That goal proved difficult (I later learned both were local runners who were strong on the hills). I finally caught them on the downhill, and as soon as I reached them, they picked up the pace. By the time we hit the next mile split, I heard one of them suggest slowing down. We had just done a 6:14 (my fastest split of the day), and I was happy they were slowing the pace a bit.
I pulled ahead slightly and then tried to settle back into my pace.
At that point of the race, I started thinking about trying to get back to No. 2. I knew the next three runners were close to each other and not out of reach. By the start of the second loop, I had them all immediately in front of me. Because the course isn’t a straight out and back for the first and last two miles, I had no clue where the leader was. But I zeroed in on retaking second. The runner who was in that spot — his name is Steven and we met afterward — looked strong. I passed him in mile 15, but I felt like he was going to chase me down at any point.
By the time I was closing in on the turnaround for the second time, at mile 19.5, I thought maybe I had missed seeing the race leader. But then I saw him and realized he was still just four minutes ahead of me. He hadn’t increased his lead at all from mile 6.5 to 19.5.
By that point, the day was quite warm and all shade was gone. For a second I thought “maybe I can catch the leader.” But that quickly faded. Instead, I wanted to hang on to second place. Steven was just 15 seconds behind me going into the last 10K, and he looked like he was going to make a strong push.
So, on the final hill, I kicked in with everything I had. Earlier in the day I was mad at myself for falling apart mentally. But in the final 10K of the Coeur d’Alene Marathon, I found a new level of toughness.
I developed a side stitch worse than any I’ve had since my first BQ in Green Bay in 2014. My legs started cramping, and I could tell I was really dehydrated.
I wanted to hang on to second place so badly. When I caught a glimpse of the leader, who had a bike escort, in mile 23, I didn’t even know what I should do. My entire body was screaming at me to slow down. But first place was just 30 seconds in front of me. Then 2o seconds. Then 10 seconds. I decided to run as hard as I could to catch up, then recover, then push in the final mile.
But, as I caught him right at the mile 24 marker, he stopped. He started walking. I learned after the race that he was the 2016 winner with a time of 2:45. He struggled in the heat in the final two miles Sunday and finished in 12th.
The lady riding the bike asked me if I was on my second loop of the full. “I am,” I replied. “Well then you’re in the lead. Let’s go,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. Just two hours earlier I was in a dark place, angry at myself, and questioning why I had the stupidity to think I had a chance to win the race. And somehow, I was the leader with two miles to go. Those were two of the longest miles of my life. At each turn, I took a quick glance back. I imagined Steven rolling up on me — in that scenario, my legs wouldn’t move fast enough to stay with him.
But no one appeared behind me. I coasted in and crossed the finish line in first place. My first ever overall win. In any distance. I have several second place finishes in 5Ks, and I have age group trophies. But never an overall.
I have a running bucket list document on my computer desktop. Two of my crazy goals: win a race, and win a marathon. On Sunday, I crossed off both of those items. It was also fun to get interviewed by the local paper (story here: Coeur d’Alene Marathon article).
I’m still wondering how it happened exactly. My first six miles were miserable. My last six miles were difficult. But all of the doubt and pain melted away at the finish line.
I left Coeur d’Alene elated. The course was stunning — think evergreen-covered mini mountains surrounding a pristine lake. The volunteers and other runners were so encouraging. Even with few fans along the course, no one went more than a few steps without encouragement.
Crossing off Idaho put me at 31 total states finished with sub-four hour marathons. I will get back to crossing states off this fall. This summer will be completely focused on speedwork.
I may never win anything ever again. Sunday could be my last ever marathon where I go under three hours (my official time was 2:54:14). But I will forever be proud of that race. There were many chances for me to give up or accept defeat. And it didn’t matter.
The moral is simple. When your plans fall apart, keep your head down. Keep pushing. Eventually something good will happen.