For whatever reason, the 25k Champs sent me into a post-race spiral of retrospection. Maybe it’s because the last time I raced this distance was also at the 5th/3rd River Bank Run in 2011.
Five years ago I was in a very different place in my life. At 25 I was 11 months into my first year back in the US, 8 months into my first year at ZAP Fitness, and my relationship with Cole was in its infancy.
At that time, instead of enjoying the luxury that life at ZAP afforded me, I was stressed out by the lifestyle changes and set of new expectations. To make matters worse, relatively poor adaptation to the new training stimuli (mostly due to my approach) had left me with low iron and lower confidence.
And what do we do when we have low confidence? I don’t know about you, but I go out too fast. And that’s exactly what I did at my first 25k Championship in 2011. Actually, the only thing I remember from that race is that Dot McMahan had found me early on, thinking I might be a good person to pair with for her marathon-pace effort – but she quickly dropped me. The rest of the “race” was a blur.
It was a great experience for me this year – my 5th time ever in the top 10 at a USA Road Championship and 3rd time in the top 5! (Get it, 5th/3rd??) Anyway, the hospitality was just as incredible as it had been 5 years ago, thanks to Elite Coordinators Greg Meyer and Nicholle Costello, but this time I was able to make much more of my race experience.
I tweeted before the race that I had to run fast enough to justify missing the Appalachian State Track & Field Sun Belt Conference Championships. With an official time of 1:28:25, I had run 5 minutes and 37 minutes faster than my previous time. And despite not feeling super sharp, I know my competition pulled the best out of me.
And just as she was there for my last time at the 25k Champs, Dot played a much bigger role in helping me to pull the best out of myself this time. Prior to the race, I had talked her, Clara Santucci, and Kelsey Bruce into working with me in the wind since we were all aiming for around 5:40 pace.
On our warm-up together, I had told Dot that I could see the pack sticking together through half way and then our group might string out after that. And that’s exactly what happened. Despite the fact that I felt like I was struggling to hang on, we all stayed together. By the 10th mile, a move had been made, but what I hadn’t pictured before the race was that I would be third in the string!
I fell off pretty hard and found myself wading through a swamp of excuses in the 11th mile. “Maybe I’m taking the wrong iron supplements?” A quote from a Nicole Tully interview I had watched the night before was ringing in my head – “A bad race never killed anybody.”
But then I split my watch at 11mi and saw that I had run 5:35 – 5 seconds faster than any of our previous splits. That meant that Clara and Dot, 5 seconds ahead of me, had just dropped 10 seconds in a single mile. And it wasn’t a particularly downhill mile from what I could tell.
The rest of the race I was staring at Dot’s back, trying to talk myself into trying harder to catch her. I spotted my watch 3 minutes after the 12mi mark and realized I had just run significantly faster than my open 20k PR. (I often turn to numbers when I need a pep talk.) Then coming through the Half Marathon mats, just after the first men’s leaders had blown past me, I looked down again and saw 1:14:56 – only my 5th time breaking 75 minutes for a Half Marathon – and smiled. I knew I had less than 14 minutes left in the race.
As I struggled to gain on Dot, I flashed back to our warm-up together. We discussed our marathoner’s fun with the 1500m and mile distances. She confided that she’s been doing some FAST track workouts and I bragged about my 4:29 1500 this spring. I joked “so what you’re saying is that if it’s you and me with a half mile to go, things could get interesting!” She laughed in agreement.
Well, she was still a few seconds ahead of me at the 15mi mark and looked strong, but I knew I had been gaining. I racked my brain to remember what the prize money drop-off was from 4th to 5th, searching for one more external motivation.
The “team love” in me also didn’t really want to chew her up in the final meters after all the work she had done early on – setting the pace and breaking the wind. But ultimately it took stepping outside myself and seeing myself as though I were coaching the athlete that was me. Knowing what I know about the potential I have and the kick that I can almost always pull out of myself if I only dig deep enough, how frustrated would I be? I’d be screaming my head off! So I pulled it together, dug deep, and gave it everything I had to the finish – and to pass Dot in the process.
In many ways I owe my finish at the 25k to the work that Dot has done – not just yesterday’s pace making and wind breaking, but for years now. She and I have had a similar path, and I’m not the only one who has recognized that. In a tearful pep talk/intervention meeting at ZAP back in 2013, Zika Rea had come prepared with a print-out of Dot McMahan’s athletic resume.
Dot, who started competing for the Hansons at age 27 in 2004, had just been announced to the 2013 World Marathon Team with her 2:32:11 from the 2012 Chicago Marathon, and Zika had brought her up to point out that she had also only recently broken 17 minutes in the 5k.
I remember Zika telling me she believed I could be as good as Dot. And it turns out that in many ways, she was right.
I also remember coming away from that meeting with mixed feelings – some of the same ones that had lead me astray in 2011. I was 27 years old at that time, and it had taken Dot almost 10 years at Hansons to make her first Marathon World Team. ZAP was an “Olympic Development” group. I thought I had to honestly believe that I could call myself an “Olympic hopeful” in order to stay on the team. I knew that 2:27 was what it had taken to make the 2012 team, and if 2:32 was the best that my coach thought I could do in 10 years, why was I at ZAP? And could I convince myself to stay there for 10 more years to find out if it would work?
Unfortunately, what I think was the original intent of the conversation didn’t really work. I had missed the point – that in between age 27 and 37, Dot had also experienced highlights of placing in the top 10 at BOTH Olympic Marathon Trials, had a daughter in between, and ran her Marathon PR of 2:31. Instead, in my misconceived notion of ZAP’s expectations, I was far too focused on one goal that seemed utterly impossible to me then. So I left ZAP a few months later.
But in another sense it absolutely did work, and I am grateful to both Zika and Dot for that. Just a year later, I ran 2:33:15. And 6 months after that, I qualified for my own US World Marathon Team.
I may have just barely out-kicked Dot yesterday, but she is still far ahead of me in almost all of her PRs and her tall stack of consistent years at or near the top of the US Distance Running World. As Dot nears 40, she is still tough as nails and still on the rise as a role-model runner, mom, and teammate. It has been an honor to follow in Dot’s footsteps, both literally yesterday and figuratively for years, and I hope to continue on that path for many years to come. I wish her the best of luck and lots of fun in her summer road mile rampage.