Strangely enough, this is my first race report of the year. Usually by this time I’ve run 6 marathons, a few halfs, a relay and a random 10K here and there. This year, nothing. Unless you count the century bike ride that abruptly ended at mile 23. It’s been a heckuva year.
Full disclosure, those days of running races every weekend are over for me. The desire is no longer there. Weekends spent tapering and recovering, packing and planning don’t sound even remotely fun anymore. What sounds fun is a nice long run early Saturday morning starting at my doorstep and ending on my front lawn. Long run promptly followed by lunch and lounging around the house. Absolutely dreamy!
That said, I only signed up for three marathons. Two local and one in Amsterdam (coming up in 4 weeks!). My first race, Utah Valley, was canceled after Shelly and I crashed our bikes at the Little Red Riding Hood century ride. Grade 3 AC separation and a fractured right hand kept me from toeing the start line the following week. I was a little disappointed, but not really. Not a fan of that race or it’s 3:30 am wake-up call.
For the next few months I focused solely on recovery with my eyes set on the Top of Utah Marathon. The recovery went well with only a few speed bumps along the way. I clawed my way back to what I felt was the best shape I could be in at my age (41) and given the physical challenges of the past year. With a couple weeks until race day, I felt as ready as I could expect and was excited to see the outcome. I had high, albeit secret, expectations.
I should know by now never to let my expectations get high.
Two weeks before race day I woke up with a stabbing pain in my back. It felt like someone had taken a hot knife and was twisting it behind my right shoulder blade all the way through my chest. I couldn’t take deep breaths or lie on my back without the pain becoming unbearable. On a scale of 1-10, I’d rate this pain as a 9. Keep in mine when the ER doctor asked how my separated shoulder felt immediately after my accident, I said a 2. Maybe a 3. He gave me a strange look and prescribed some serious pain meds for me.
I thought the back pain was another side effect of my bike accident, so I didn’t seek treatment until my scheduled appointment with my orthopedic surgeon 10 days later. In the meantime, I was sleeping mostly on the couch with a heating pad since laying on my back was excruciating. I was still teaching and running a little, but each day became more difficult.
I won’t bore you with the details of my doctor’s visit except to tell you that once the doctor determined my pain was not a side effect of my accident, he told me to immediately get to the ER for x-rays and blood tests. For the second time this summer (and the second time in my entire LIFE) I found myself in the ER hooked up to an EKG and IV. After a few tests and a few hours it was determined that I had come down with a case of pleurisy.
Pleurisy? Seriously? That still exists? Didn’t that go the way of the plague? Apparently not. Pleurisy is inflammation in the lining of the lungs. Sometimes it’s caused by pneumonia, a virus or bacterial infection. I tested negative for all of those. We don’t know why this happened to me, but it happened nonetheless. It explains the back and chest pains. It explains the fact that deep breaths hurt like, well, you know. It explains why sleeping in a recliner is preferable to sleeping on my back. There’s nothing to be done but let it run it’s course. Ibuprofen, a lidocaine patch and time is my prescription.
So, the marathon. That was the big question. Do I run? Do I drop out of another? How could I have such bad luck this year? I asked the doctor what she thought and after she gave me a confused look she said I could start the race with low expectations. I should be prepared to drop out at the first sign of breathlessness. Um, that’s every race. So I understood that to mean I should drop out if I start to feel anything unusual. She told me that running wouldn’t make the pleurisy worse, but I definitely wouldn’t feel good when it was over, so just expect it. Well, I never feel great after a marathon. I can live with that.
I’ll be honest. Deep down I had every intention of running this race, but I waffled back and forth clear up until the minute the race started. Pleurisy hurts. Bad. I can stand a lot of pain, but I didn’t know how bad this was going to get and I was scared. What helped me decide to run was knowing that the course allowed my family to follow me and I could drop out at any moment if needed.
The night before the race I was in pajamas by 6 pm. Okay, that’s almost every day for me. I chose not to take ibuprofen. I know better than to do that before a race. I did apply a lidocaine patch. I slept on the heating pad and hoped for the best.
My running partner Tyler picked me up at 5 am and we headed to the start line. This is marathon #44, but I swear I felt like a first-timer. It had been a year since I’d done this. I felt so out of practice. I forgot my Immodium. I forgot how to eat before the start. I stressed over how to dress. Ugh! I was a mess. But Tyler managed to talk me off the ledge and kept me relatively calm. He reminded me that I’d checked off all my race goals: sub-3 (3X), winning a marathon (2X), placing overall at TOU (3X). What he didn’t know is I had one more goal in mind- to set the course record for the Female Master’s Division at TOU.
The race started and the first mile felt great. It was chilly, but I felt no pain in my back or lungs. Hallelujah! Miles 2-3 felt a little harder. Not as downhill as I remember. Tyler and I separated by mile 5. I knew I needed to run through the water stops. Momentum was going to be my friend today and I had to keep it going.
TOU is gorgeous. Running down Blacksmith Fork Canyon is a gift. The full moon shone bright above the mountainside dappled in red, gold and green (insert Culture Club song here). The stream running next to us was the only music my ears needed. I can honestly say that I was just happy to be there in that moment. Sad that it takes a series of unfortunate events for me to realize what a gift a healthy body is, but at least I recognized it and soaked it all in.
Running down the canyon wasn’t as easy as I remembered. My splits were mostly sub-7 minutes, but not as fast as I’d hoped. That said, I was faster than I expected and crossed the 13.1 mile marker in just over 1:31. I saw my husband and daughter at the mouth of the canyon at Mile 14. Tossed them my shirt and arm warmers and never looked back.
The challenge of TOU is the last 12 miles. Coming out of the canyon, those neighborhood roads are rough. Literally. Gone are the smooth highways. Now we’re dodging potholes, construction, battling up hills, twisting and turning our way through what feels like every road to Logan. As hard as it is, this is where I excel. I’m not from Logan, but this race feels like home. Run the canyon smart and those last 12 miles aren’t as bad. I pass a lot of runners the second half and today was no exception.
At Mile 16 I still wasn’t having any chest or back pain (tiny blessings) but my shoulder was on FIRE!!!! With all the drama of my back, I’d forgotten that my bike accident was still causing me pain. Nothing sharp. Just a dull ache, like someone lighting a match and holding it under my collarbone. I tried to shake it out. I tried to roll my arm in circles. It was difficult to reach for water. By the end of the race I could barely lift it. But my legs felt fine and I was breathing. So far, so good.
The last three miles are always the worst. Lots of uphill. Uneven roads. But as soon as my mind began diving down to dark places, I forced myself out of it. At this point the race is mental for me. Running uphill on Main Street, past the Center Street Grill where I’d be feasting on onion rings in just a few short hours, around the corner and back down the other side toward the finish line, I just felt happy.
I didn’t know what place overall I was. I was pretty confident that I could win the Master’s division. I’d done the math in my head and was almost certain I was going to break the course record by a few minutes. Whatever happened, I was finishing this thing and that was awesome enough.
Running down the last .2 miles toward the finish line was extra special since it was unexpected. I saw my family, heard my name and finished strong in 3:06! Sixth place overall female. First place master’s female and new Female Master’s course record holder by 5 minutes!
I waited to watch Tyler finish. He met his goal finishing in 3:28. We both won another beautiful moose trophy.
I love this race with all my heart. I love the course. I love the fall colors. I love the finish line. I love the organizers. I love the small town feel. I love the volunteers.
Sadly, this may be the last year for this race. Downhill marathons are the popular choice in Utah. People gunning for PR’s and BQ’s are opting for steeper downhill runs in lieu of more challenging course. TOU is by no means the toughest of marathons, but it’s not as steep as Big Cottonwood and other local favorites. I contend that marathons are about more than finish times, though. They’re about overcoming obstacles, battling through the dark, ugly moments and coming out the other side stronger in both mind and spirit. Top of Utah does that for me every year.
Next year will be my 10th running of this race, if there is a race. I hope to be inducted into the 10-year club. I hope others will see TOU for the incredible experience it is and do themselves a favor and sign up.