A Marathon Birthday: Solo Running In a Pandemic
This marathon race report is brought to you by our Chaski Ambassador Greg Lehman. This was his 36th birthday and the second year of this birthday-race tradition.
Birthday Marathon - 26.2 Virtual Marathon Course from Ojai to Ventura, Segment courtesy of Josh Spiker and Cody Logan
I qualified for the Boston Marathon at the 2019 Los Angeles Marathon, my fourth time stepping up to the distance. I’m proud to say this since it’s the type of course that let me know every time I’ve stepped up to it (this being the third) that this was not going to be an easy day. I was 34 at the time, so my cutoff was 3:05, and I caught a 3:03:06. This was my first BQ, and I was lucky enough to get chosen in the lottery for the 2020 Boston Marathon.
We all know what happened, and I won’t complain about cancelled races during a global pandemic that has seen staggering amounts of death (almost 1.1 million as I’m writing this in late October 2020) and suffering. My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected directly or indirectly by COVID-19, and I hope things turn around for the better for everyone soon.
In spite of the pandemic, some of us with the right strain of drive and resources can continue to race in the virtual realm. To be clear, the lack of in-person competition, bibs, and official measurements set this medium apart from the usual formats we all know and love. Whether these times “count” or not invites the question of what it means for a race to “count,” and to whom.
I won’t try to have the final word on the debate here, or anywhere really. Subjective goals and preferences are part of what makes running such an inclusive community, and I don’t want that, or the lively debates around pretty much everything in this beautiful sport, to change.
For myself, I miss racing tremendously and feel incomplete if I lack a project I’m training for. So I decided I wanted to get a new marathon personal record for my 36th birthday on September 28th. I completed my first 50-miler for my birthday last year at Crimson Canyons in Richfield, Utah (catching 12:46 and 8th place overall, still not sure how, but damn proud of it, too) and I liked the idea of continuing a tradition of doing crazy things on my birthday, so this seemed like a perfect way to celebrate.
I dedicated my fifth marathon to my good friend Brad Weissberg, who was supposed to cheer me on at Boston but sadly passed away in March. Patrick and Sara Stover gave me the idea of writing the names of people who mean a lot to us on our shoes, and I did so the morning of my marathon. Brad was and is a legend, I will always miss him, and his energy put me in a great place throughout the day.
Headband, shorts, and singlet all by HOKA ONE ONE, as well as my shoes, of course: brand new Mach 3s, blue moon/white colorway, out of the box right before go-time.
For nutrition, I brought five Roctane GUs (Cold Brew Coffee, Strawberry Kiwi, and Cherry Lime), with the plan that I would take one every five miles, though I ended up only taking four after my race took a turn towards the end.
Cheri Whitt and the Agoura Hills chapter of the Galloway Training Group have been a pleasure to work with through my job as a field experience representative at HOKA ONE ONE. Cheri had recently run her first 100-miler and was telling me about how her friends showed up to help crew her, so I asked if she would be up for doing the same for me, pretty please. She didn’t hesitate to say yes, and her, Tawni Gomes, and Eva Gomez made the best crew I could ask for throughout my run.
I have never run competitively with someone riding a bike next to me to give me water, pep talks, and a few laughs when I needed them. If you’re thinking about taking this approach, and have people who are willing to lend this kind of support, I cannot recommend it enough, big fan here.
I started my training plan with Kris Brown, my coach at Chaski, on July 20th with the goal of catching at least a PR on September 28th. The training pushed me in great ways and kept me in my Goldilocks-zone of 40-50 miles per week with a peak of over 70 before we tapered down to race day.
We got speed work in twice a week on average, including many new workouts and variations I had never done before, as well as more emphasis on strides, which I do not do enough. Kris’ plan asked a lot of me, and the strength and progress I found through it was everything I could ask of a coach.
The course, conditions, and support could not have been better. With a profile scaling down from a peak at 1,372 in Ojai down to Ventura, the segment provided by my friends Cody Logan and Josh Spiker leveled out at around 16 miles. From there a few bumps were all that interrupted a fairly flat, beach-side home stretch to the finish line.
We started just after 6:00 a.m., and the combination of a chilly, lingering mist and a decline that made this feel less like running than riding the hills made this a dream of a first act. I couldn’t stop smiling and kept the pace I wanted. And my splits gave me plenty of optimism. But I was happy to conserve. Everyone compares, and will always compare, extended bouts of effort and fatigue to marathons for good reason. It’s a distance without subtlety, be it flat, ascending, or descending.
When I showed Tyler Andrews the course profile of this segment he asked about my quads. I’d been doing more leg workouts recently, but it was a good question.
At 18.5 miles my hamstrings started to talk to me. This hadn’t happened to me before, but I’d never hit a 6:30 pace going downhill for this long before.
I drank more water, took more GU, and thought good things. After a few miles, the run went into maintenance mode. Which, of course, is when a race starts. Ventura beach stretched out to my left, dolphins and all. My mind went to all of the super easy sections around my home, the ones I know best, and the shortest ways I take them.
My splits are a great visual. Two miles out and my left hammy declared mutiny. Just done. Nope. We’re locking up, curtains. If you think about moving, we’ll make it hurt more.
So I held my leg and said a lot of things and laughed in that “of course” way when you have to laugh, or when I do.
We waited a bit, and Cheri kept me laughing. I could move my leg again and started to walk. I tried a little shuffle-run, held it before I couldn’t, and we walked a little over a mile to the end. I was glad I could get there, and I’m proud to have finished. It was a beautiful experience, and I wouldn't love the things I love if they were easy.
I learned a ton, and know what I need more of. More sleep. More strength. More calories. I’ll be back, and races will be back, and I cannot overstate how excited I am to run in another big marathon. I have no idea where it will be, but I can’t wait.
In terms of virtual races, both sides of the coin are clear to me. Losing the in-person, competitive draw of finding out who you can beat and battling the people who want to see if they’re faster than you is reason enough to skip the virtual realm. This is not logic that I want to argue with, but for me competing against myself and seeing what I can do are factors I’ll take however I can.
Many thanks again to Cheri, Tawni, and Eva for crewing me, Tyler, Kris, Brannon, and everyone in the Chaski Endurance family, all the friends and family who helped out in large and small ways, you know who you are, and everyone at HOKA ONE ONE, Drymax, NATHAN, and GU Energy Labs for keeping me in the best gear I could ask for.
Losing the competitive draw of seeing who you’re faster than and battling the people who want to see if they’re faster than you is reason enough to be uninterested in virtual events, and it’s not logic that I want to argue with. For me, competition and pushing myself are factors I’ll take however I can, and the fact that I’m doing it against myself is plenty reason enough for me to keep engaging challenges and seeing what I can do.
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