The first gurgle in my stomach began midday on Saturday.
I thought, ‘Maybe it was just from carb loading. My body is maxed out and that’s why I am having some GI distress.’ I started going through potential causes, none of which were that detrimental.
Deep down I knew I was kind of lying to myself.
I sat in the pre-race technical meeting Saturday night, needing to go to the bathroom really bad but not able to go anywhere, which was horrible. I was nervous but tried to stay positive.
After all, I have only dropped out of two races in my life, once due to injury and once due to extreme cramping. There was no way an upset stomach was knocking me out of the biggest marathon in the world, the TCS New York City Marathon.
I didn’t train most of the year for an aggressive racing plan that included the BMW Berlin Marathon, the Twin Cities 10-Mile, and me curled up in the fetal position in my Manhattan hotel room. My family certainly didn’t fly to New York to watch that.
Abandoning my final marathon before the U.S. Olympic Trials and what could be my last chance to make the team was not how I envisioned the whirlwind last five weeks ending. But looking back, I’m not sure I would change anything.
Typically, I race often and recover well. I’m relentless like that.
Each year, my racing plan is initiated by me when I am most excited. At this point in my career, what really drives me are the things that I am passionate about. I don’t really feel like I have to prove anything or do anything. Besides, it is more fun to race when you’re excited.
When I was looking at 2019 a couple of opportunities jumped out, both born out of unfortunate occurrences last year.
One, I knew that I wanted to run fast. I felt ready for a big PR since my previous PR attempts over the last few years were thwarted by injury. I ran 2:26:20 in Ottawa last May, but it was off of really just six weeks of hard training and a two-week taper.
I felt ready to run fast in Frankfurt last year, but unfortunately had this peroneal tendon issue just pop up out of nowhere the week before and I had to drop out of that race. I tried to run through it, but it got worse and worse to the point that I couldn’t put any weight on it for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t run for seven weeks because it was so bad.
So, I had my eyes on Berlin right away after Frankfurt last year. Besides, obviously, being flat and fast, I knew it was also the last of the six World Marathon Majors races that I hadn’t run yet and one I was excited to experience.
I felt like I definitely needed and wanted to do Boston in 2019. Boston had eluded me in 2018 due to injury and I was dying to experience it. My original plan was to get the experience of competing over a hilly course in the spring to prepare me for the hilly Olympic Trials in Atlanta.
However, the injury I sustained right before the Frankfurt Marathon lingered much longer than I anticipated and led to another compensatory injury, a sacral stress fracture in the winter of 2019. Going into Boston I unfortunately was in great shape cardiovascularly but my legs were not calloused to the pounding that I needed to for all of the downhills in Boston. I finished a disappointing 15th.
I didn’t get the experience over a hilly course that I was hoping to have in Boston, but New York was very excited about having me, so I started to entertain the idea of getting more hilly experience there. As an American marathon runner, the TCS New York City Marathon is one of the most meaningful places to compete.
Competing at the NYRR Mini 10k in June reminded me how much I enjoy racing in New York. I won that race at the same finish line as the marathon. New York has been a place I really love competing and it actually made sense to help prepare me for the Trials.
While a lot of runners may have looked at their schedules, particularly their fall racing schedule, with the Trials specifically in mind, adding New York to my calendar itself was not just a means to that end, but also a very important moment where I wanted to perform well on this stage. Performing well would in turn will prepare me for the Trials. They went hand in hand.
Doing two marathons in such a short span is very unorthodox, but for me, recovering from a marathon to continue racing has just become normal.
In fact, I believe I’ve only run one marathon where I didn’t race again within five weeks, the exception being Frankfurt where I was injured and couldn’t run at all for seven weeks and New York in 2016, when I felt fried from a long Olympic Trials year and needed a long break mentally and physically.
It all dates back to my very first marathon in 2015. The L.A. Marathon was a total disaster. I ran 2:48:02 and it left me pretty wrecked from the course and hot conditions. After the race, I couldn’t walk normally. I needed help going up and down the stairs. My knees would buckle. It was mainly because of my quads from all of the downhills. But I didn’t feel energy tired.
If you have never experienced it, the best way to describe it would be like getting in your car, knowing you have a full tank of gas, but putting it in drive and realizing all four tires are flat.
I had qualified for the World Cross Country Championships in Qingzhen, China, 13 days later, and after the disappointment in LA, I entertained the idea of regrouping for World Cross as a way to redeem my performance in the marathon and use all the great training I had put in towards it.
My legs were trashed, rivaled only by how they felt after Boston this year when I needed crutches to get around, but I put my head down and threw myself into my recovery. I wound up placing 19th, my personal highest placing and world cross and the highest American finisher in any of the races. That opened my mind to the idea of a marathon not needing to be a hard stop to the season, if I didn’t want it to be.
Is it always a good idea?
If you’ve had a healthy buildup and your body has been training hard for a long time, often it needs a break and after a marathon is a good time for one. But for me, I’ve usually had a reason to keep going.
In 2016, it was continuing for the sake of getting some redemption. I ran the London Marathon 10 weeks after dropping out of the Olympic Marathon Trials with a cramp at 17.5 miles, and then kept going after that for the sake of the Olympic Track Trials.
The following year saw the only other time that I’ve done two marathons five weeks apart, when I raced Frankfurt and CIM/U.S. Marathon Champs. In that instance, we had terrible conditions in Frankfurt (30 mph winds) that slowed me down substantially from running the max time I was capable of. I was looking to run faster in CIM. I didn’t, but it was still fun to win the national championship near my hometown.
In 2018, I PR’d at the Gold Coast Half five weeks after running my marathon PR in Ottawa. More recently, because I’ve had significant injuries in my buildups, I’m enjoying training again and haven’t been training uninterrupted so long that I don’t want to take another break.
After each of these marathons, I have experimented with how much training to do to recover well, but not be flat going into the next race. I’ve also developed a different mentality when it comes to the marathon and recovering afterwards than what is really the cultural norm.
I was champing at the bit going into Berlin. Physically, I felt really good. I was ready to go early in my build-up, so it felt like I was waiting forever for race day to arrive.
Weather was good the morning of the race. Not amazing, but good enough for me to be thinking, ‘It’s go time!’ I was determined to take advantage of the moment because you don’t get those opportunities very often, particularly on fast courses. I was determined to not let anything get in the way of this moment.
As the race went out, I was surprised that the leaders didn’t go straight to world record pace like I thought that they would. That allowed me to settle into the lead pack and actually lead the race for a little bit, which was really fun. When the pace ratcheted down, I was tempted to go with them because they were right there, but then I thought, ‘No. Just stick to your plan and pace.’
At the halfway mark, Ryan had said beforehand that, ‘If you feel good you can start going for it.’ So I picked up the pace. When girls started coming back to me, I went from minding splits and clicked into competing mode. I stopped looking at my watch and focused on catching people.
There was one point where I had caught a couple of the pre-race favorites – I had passed maybe four or five girls – and I saw a lead car with one girl behind it. I thought it was the leader of the race and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to win the Berlin Marathon!’ I got really excited and dropped some 5:10 paced miles.
I passed her, and the car went with me, but when I looked around there wasn’t that much of an entourage next to me. It didn’t really feel like I was winning the race. I saw Ryan soon after and I asked him, ‘What place am I?’ He said, ‘I think you’re fifth.’ I was like, ‘Ugh!’ I was so deflated because I thought I was winning Berlin. It’s funny to think about seeing as lost by like two minutes, but you don’t really know how many people have dropped out or are in front of you.
I did suffer a bit near the end. Getting excited and running those few miles so fast, and then soloing the final 10K into a headwind took its toll on my legs. But I was pretty stoked to see the clock. I was hoping that I might dip under 2:22. There was that part of me that was like, ‘Argh, I was so close!’ But in the end, I was really happy.
Just because I was comfortable with my fall racing plan, doesn’t mean I was 100% confident that I had made the right decision.
If I am being completely honest, sandwiching a defense of my U.S. 10-Mile championship at Twin Cities might have been a little excessive. I was excited about the idea of racing there because in years past, my first meaty workout after racing a marathon would be a 10-mile tempo at marathon pace. Under “normal” circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have run that tempo at 5:19 pace (marathon pace was 5:25), but competing in one of my favorite races of the year and coming away with a 3-peat victory was worth having to run a little bit faster.
I can say that now with the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight. But the Thursday before Twin Cities, I actually regretted committing to the race. I did a 3-mile progressive tempo with some 30-second strides to take inventory of my body to make sure there were no budding injuries. It actually felt terrible.
There was a part of me, then, that wished I hadn’t flipped the script so quickly, and took more time to revel in running a four-minute PR. I actually never really celebrated Berlin because right after the race we left to see Ryan’s family in Germany, and then were just back in the grind at home helping the kids, and then making last minute plans for Minnesota.
Those kinds of breakthrough PRs are hard to come by. While my personality tends to be, “on to the next thing,” something I’m learning is that it’s good to take moments to pause and reflect and celebrate achievements.
But physically, I was in great shape. After Berlin, I took more recovery time than I needed -- even when you’re being aggressive you have to play it safe with the Olympic Trials on the horizon. Training almost every day between Berlin and Twin Cities consisted of an easy 30- to 40-minute run. I took one full day off, and then the baby workout.
After the TC10 Mile, I put my foot back on the gas in training knowing that my window for hard training before tapering for New York was down to two weeks. I implemented some cross training but was exercising the normal amount of minutes I typically do during a marathon buildup which is about 1 hour and 50 minutes, give or take, on easy days.
My training looked very similar to what I normally do at four and three weeks out from a marathon. The key difference was that I really upped the number of hills I was doing and ran my workouts on much hillier courses. Not that I was avoiding hills before Berlin, but race week and the week after I kept pretty flat so I wanted to re-callous my legs to the pounding of the downhills.
While I have been able to draw confidence from, and find peace in the fact that I have already achieved my primary goal of getting into the best shape of my life, there is always that sense of uneasiness going into a race wondering if your legs will come around on race day.
For me, these haven’t been fleeting or recurring moments. My legs have, consistently, not felt well before any of these races. During every build up, I will get to two weeks out and be like, ‘I don’t want my legs to be feeling like this on race day.’ It’s probably better that they don’t feel good at that point because they always seem to come around.
It takes more than being in great physical condition to race two major marathons sandwiched around a national championship 10-miler in five weeks. It takes an uncanny amount of courage and belief.
When I ran World Cross two weeks after the L.A. Marathon, there was nothing that really told me that I could pull it off. I think the biggest thing was that I was willing to take the risk.
I always want to have the rewards for all of the hard work training. If you do this big build up and then your race is a disaster, it’s like, ‘That was supposed to be kind of like the reward for everything you’ve done.’ I always want to see that training realized in something.
That’s what’s kept me going a lot after marathons, especially after injuries in the marathon cycle. Ottawa, I had a very short training and I wanted to just keep going. I wanted to use the fitness that I worked for towards something. I’m never really confident that I can do it. It’s more just like I’m willing to try because I believe there’s more in there that I’ve worked for.
The willingness to take those risks stems from why I compete. When you’re racing for the love of the sport and without the burden of having something to prove every time you toe the line, then you’re probably going to be more willing to take a chance against the norm that another runner isn’t. I think that’s why people don’t race a lot in general - the pressure and nerves around it, but if you get freed from all of that, it’s a lot more enjoyable and less taxing.
I tend to race more than average in a marathon buildup, but you can’t rest for all of them, especially in a marathon buildup. If you race more frequently, you’re just going to have to race on tired legs. I’m willing to do that because I enjoy racing and I don’t have anything to prove, so I’m not afraid to fail.
Sometimes the race goes poorly and I’m bummed because I want my running to be a reflection of all the work I have put in and of how much I care. I may not have gotten the result I wanted, but I’m able to move on a lot quicker now.
But that wasn’t always the case.
In 2009, Ryan and I were living in Mammoth Lakes. It was certainly the most trying time I ever had in my professional career. I was definitely underachieving for my potential. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I was probably trying harder than I am now. I was just really struggling physically which leads to struggling mentally and emotionally when you can’t get your body to cooperate. I had some good moments of making World Indoor teams and success on the road, but hadn’t seemed to run to my potential outdoors.
I remember feeling like I was ready to turn the chapter on professional running because this wasn’t even my plan to do this for this long, even that long, which at that time was only four years. I would always love running and continue to run my whole life, but I already had dreams of what I wanted to do post-running. but Ryan obviously was at the prime of his career and really thriving, so moving on didn’t make sense.
I also felt like I was letting people down, whether it was my sponsors or my coach, and that really affected me. I have a natural kind of people pleasing personality, and the feeling of being unable to perform at your job, even though you’re trying hard, was humbling and the weight of that was hard to carry.
I was not enjoying Mammoth. It’s a really small town. You’re there for running, so if running is not going well, it’s not a great place to be. But I decided I had to find a way to thrive where I was at. So I got really involved in my church up there. I did this school of ministry connected to Bethel Church in Redding. I just experienced God a lot through that school and through that was able to deal with a lot of the stress that had been created through running.
He just really brought to my attention how much I based my identity around running success because I pretty much had success immediately in the sport. I lost very few times in high school or junior high or anything. My personality in general is very achievement-oriented so I built a lot of my identity and my self-worth around my performances.
But I learned that He created me not just as a runner. I’m worthy of love no matter how I perform. There are a lot of people in the running world that do treat you differently depending on how you’re running. But those are not the people that matter. The ones who do love me do so no matter what. That realization helped me get more of my identity rooted in who I am apart from running and how much God loves that person. That was really the turning point. All of a sudden, I just started feeling a lot more free to race without fearing failure and as a result.
When I was at Stanford, a sports psychologist spoke to our entire team and painted the analogy of the sled dog. They’re always pulling at the chains and want to be the ones picked to get out and pull the sled, do what they were created to do. Ryan and I got to do a sled dog trip this past winter and that was definitely the case.
That’s the kind of mentality going into a race that I like to have. Like, ‘Put me in! I’m the one who wants to be in the race doing what I was created to do.’ I don’t like thoughts of dread or pressure. It’s more about excitement.
That analogy has just kind of stuck with me over the years. I don’t think I was truly able to grasp that perspective until I got freedom from fearing failure and was able to embrace that excitement.
Had I not gone through that evolution, there is no way I would have been able to race two World Marathon Majors in just over a month or go into New York with the comfort of being able to chalk up a potential blow up on the world’s biggest stage to having run 2:22 in Berlin five weeks earlier.
I wouldn’t have even gotten to the point of enjoying my career the most I ever have at the age of 36, and running the sixth fastest time in U.S. history.
I woke up Sunday morning before heading to the start and my stomach was definitely not right. I hadn’t absorbed food for about a day, and felt weaker than usual. But warming up on Staten Island, I felt good enough so I tried to remain optimistic.
When the cannon goes off, you don’t really have time to think anymore. You just go. I was right there in the lead pack coming off the Verrazano Bridge, but my gradual decline was already happening.
By Mile 3 I noticed that I was getting wobbly on my feet. I debated not taking one of my bottles because I couldn’t imagine putting anything in my stomach. I took my bottles anyway and just kept trying to tell myself that I’m strong and can handle it. There was a lot of positive self talk going on.
It was around Mile 10 that I began to question whether I could, or should, sustain this all the way to Central Park. I want to keep my positive momentum going, and wondered if that would help me mentally and physically, or would I be digging myself a hole that could take a while to get out of. I might have been more likely to try to gut it through to the bitter end or even longer if the Trials weren’t 118 days away.
So when I got to East Harlem, somewhere between Miles 18 and 19, I pulled the plug. Ryan and my two oldest daughters, Hana and Mia, were actually cheering only a few blocks from where I stepped off the course on First Avenue. I hadn’t reached them yet, but someone was nice enough to let me use their phone to call him. We all took an Uber back to the hotel.
It’s not fun to drop out. As I’m reflecting, it’s leaving me with a really weird feeling. I like to feel that I gave my all, whatever that was, so this will take a little bit to rebound from.
That said, I am not sure anything else has changed. I felt good coming to New York and had every reason to believe that it would turn out well. I felt a lot better than I did before the 10 Mile, and that race went really well. This was definitely a bit of an outlier experience.
I will probably be more careful before the Trials, like not eat anything that I don’t cook, see what I could do to minimize the chances of this happening again. But I’m already really careful. I don’t feel like I need to shift anything drastically. I also don’t live in fear.
I really want to have a strong race here, so I will definitely be back to run New York. The crowd was incredible out there. They kept me going longer than I probably would have otherwise. They were so amazing.