Since running my last marathon on April 9, 2011, I've had a lot of ups and downs. I've had some periods of no running (41 miles in July '11) and some periods of nothing but running (222 miles in January). I've had easy runs, hard runs and in-between runs, short and long and all sorts of distances.
But Sunday's run was easily the most daunting, challenging and monumental run I've had since running my fourth marathon. And like most long runs since September, this was different because I was a pace leader. We've been training for the LA Marathon and all but in many ways I had to train to be right on this day, for this run. I had to maybe not set the pace the entire way but I certainly had to rally the group, provide a positive environment, encouragement and support, both vocally and by example. And how could I do that if I was unprepared for the distance?
I had a lot weighing on me then before the run but I tried to compartmentalize everything. I tried not to focus on the entire 22 miles but rather landmarks along the way - the first water stop, the second water (near a place known as The Bell), the turnaround... anything to take away the focus from 22.
I had a decent week of runs: 3, 8, 5, 10, 4 and 4. Carbo loading went well and I felt rested, but taking off on a 22-mile run is something else. The group was talkative at first but there were certainly long pauses early on, probably a collective sense of apprehension tinged with some anxiety.
My legs felt great early on. Before I had a chance to blink, we were at The Bell, at Mile 4.6 or so. I gauged my legs and I knew I had many more miles in them. I took a GU, kept drinking Gatorade and tried to set a strong foundation for the rest of the run.
After leaving The Bell I realized we were running pretty fast, under 9 minutes a mile. I tried to ease back a bit but it seemed everyone was in a rhythm and it was tough to scale back. Eventually we were on a mentally tough portion of the run. Miles 7-10 would be on a bike path with not a lot of scenery. The miles were rough to simply because we had so many miles to do that even after a solid eight miles, we'd still have 14 left to go.
Finally, though, we were off the bike path, winding around a neighborhood and then the turnaround. We'd have to turn around and run every step once more, but that was fine. I felt good mentally and physically and none of the other runners were hurting either.
Around Mile 12.5 though I thought I felt something. My legs seemed a tad bit heavy. I couldn't decide if they really felt heavy or if I was just imagining it, but I just tried to ignore the feeling. I feared though that if they really were heavy, then I would struggle bad towards the end of the run.
Not trying to think about that, I instead tried to focus on the water stop, which would be at Mile 15. But my mind was doing some bad things at this point and I felt the run was a never-ending one. I had a hard time focusing on the water stop. Conversation was light, we were spread apart a little at this point and the run became tough.
But by the time we reached Mile 15, we had gotten a bit closer together. Two of the speedier runners had gone off ahead and three others had settled into a more comfortable, slower pace. That left five of us together, and only three of us had run a marathon before.
I ate some licorice at Mile 15. I couldn't resist. There was a bin of them and they were tempting, and a bit of a change of pace from the three GUs that I had taken. GU was sitting okay in my stomach but was also threatening to stage a revolt.
The next mile was almost all uphill, but any questions I'd had about my legs feeling heavy were gone by this point. I wasn't exactly flying uphill but I wasn't struggling either. I was keeping a strong pace and felt no heaviness at all.
At about Mile 16.3 we finally were done with hills (for a bit of a stretch) as we were heading back out towards The Bell. Before long, we were leaving The Bell (again) and headed back to the start. Half of me was expecting to hit a wall and the other half was anxious to test myself at this distance. We got a little more spread out at this point. My focus turned to maintaining my pace, which was in the low- to mid-nines.
We reached Mile 20 and I felt strong. I was encouraged. Much like I felt at the end of my 20-mile run in January, I felt as if all of my hard work and training had paid off. Here I was, at 20 miles, and not only was I not collapsing but I was holding a good pace and felt strong.
I was not done, though, but now I could begin to focus on the finish. We wound through another neighborhood, got to Mile 21 and kept going. With about a half-mile to go, we briefly got stuck at a light but after that I was home free. I thought about trying to pick up the pace the last stretch but decided against it as I did not want to injure myself.
Finally, I turned a corner and hit Mile 22. I did not want to stop until the spot where we'd started our run, more than three and a half hours prior to that. In the end, I ran 22.13 miles in 2:58:57, a pace of 9:54 minutes per mile.
Some congratulatory high-fives and handshakes followed. We'd all set out on this daunting run but we'd all handled it so well. If there was ever any true fear, nobody showed it.
As for me, I felt as if I could have run more, which is always an encouraging sign. Don't get me wrong, I was glad to be done, but I had more left in me.
And that feeling, along with everything else that went right with this run, combined to make this my best training run ever.