When a cannon fired to start the 2017 Phoenix Marathon, I was already sprinting. Because of a long wait in the port-o-let line, I didn’t make it to the front of the corral where I wanted to be. Instead, I crossed the starting line with the 4-hour pace group. I continued running hard, out wide on the gravel shoulder. I was panicking. My first thought was that somehow the PR I have been working hard for wasn’t going to happen.
I forced myself to settle in mentally. The sun was starting to illuminate the sky to my left, and I could see thousands of cacti along the hills. The air temperature was perfect (in the low 40s), and my legs felt good. The rush of panic I felt while trying to catch up to the front wore off started to fade.
As I attempted to calm down and find my rhythm, a thought bounced around in my brain.
“Breakthroughs aren’t easy.”
I have felt a surge of confidence in the past few weeks. This year’s training has been solid for me, and I’ve told multiple people that I’m in the best running shape of my life.
January was a mileage PR for a single month for me, and I did the miles at my fastest average pace ever as well. February has been even faster with a higher daily average as well. I have had a special feeling in many of my runs, a running high where I feel like I can keep pushing faster and faster.
Saying I wanted to PR at the Phoenix Marathon was an understatement. My true goal was to break the 2:50 mark for the first time ever, which meant I needed to cut nearly eight minutes.
All of those goals and worries swirled through my head, while I desperately tried to stay on pace.
I quickly realized that I needed another bathroom stop, so I pulled off the course for the port-o-lets at the 5 mile mark. I lost nearly two minutes off my pace with that break, and the panic returned.
The next mile was the toughest of the whole course, the only uphill section of the point-to-point race. I was straining trying to get back on pace, and my mind was flying away again. I gave up my goal in those moments, and I felt angry with myself as I ran uphill.
Why had I messed up my nutrition, and why couldn’t I get on track?
But I went back to my training again: my weeks of hard workouts, high mileage, and multiple runs a day. I have finished some of the toughest workouts of my life in the past two months.
“Breakthroughs aren’t easy.” They are earned.
It doesn’t matter how prepared you are for race day. You have to line up and finish the miles. Even the best runners in the world don’t quite know what to expect from a marathon.
By the time I stopped again in mile 10, I was back in a groove. That pitstop was considerably shorter, and I focused on getting to the halfway point.
I passed 13.1 miles in 1:24:22, which was on target for my sub 2:50 goal. But the Phoenix Marathon is much faster in the first half, and the second half levels off. I ran this race in 2016, and my 2:57:58 from that year was my PR entering Saturday’s race. I knew what to expect from the second half, and a year ago I ended up walking some in the final five miles. Somehow, I let all of that knowledge and fear evaporate. I just wanted to keep running as hard as I could for as long as I could.
The second half of a marathon is always challenging. I normally positive split races, with varying degrees of severe dropoff. This time my hard training in hilly San Diego was evident.
I experienced a similar second half in January when I negative spit the Carlsbad Marathon. This time was even more special, and I entered that runners high territory. I felt like I was on autopilot, and my breathing was easy and level. The fast pace felt natural, and I started calculating to figure out if I could get under 2:50. I had given up that goal, but with 10K left I felt a flash of hope.
Each mile felt the same to me, and I felt a momentum boost when I knew I could walk in and still PR.
But I didn’t walk. My final 10K was my fastest by far (37:30), which is technically a PR for that distance for me. My second half (1:22:50) was 12 seconds slower than my half marathon PR.
Breakthroughs aren’t easy. But they are worth all of the hard work they require.
As I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch, I felt like everything was a dream. My finish time of 2:47:11 was nearly three minutes faster than my wildest dream. I knew going in that I was in shape to run well, but I never thought I could shatter my goal.
I happily lined up to ring the Phoenix Marathon PR bell for a second straight year.
Two days later, and I’m still floating.
I will start my buildup for my first Boston Marathon later this week. I know my next breakthrough won’t be any easier. I’ll have race-day doubts and panic.
But I’m ready to put in the work.