Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Ugly Truth

I've spent the last almost 2 weeks debating on whether or not I should write about this race. Reliving it crushes my spirit a little bit each time, so the thought of creating something concrete where the memory will live forever.. stings a little. And everytime I sit down to try, I find "something better to fill my time with."

But the truth is, I am able. I am willing. And I'll be damned if I'm gonna let one bad day win the mental game.

Highlight of the day: watching these 2 have amazing races!!
Going into Illinois, my head space was as clear as it could be. I had put in the work. My long runs had all been pretty on point. I was nailing my weekday workouts on the road. Recovery was going well.. up until the weekend before.

I had a nagging tender hamstring/IT band after the last long run going into race weekend. Nothing to be nervous about. Just a longer than normal recovery. I paid extra attention to my legs during race week, including a deep tissue massage and a cut back on mileage to make sure everything was ready to go. And on top of this, I am the adult that has acquired allergies as they go through life. My first experience happened about a month prior to Illinois. My 2nd experience? Illinois Half Marathon race week, of course. I pretty much bought stock in Allegra and popped those pills like candy to keep as much phlegm out of my lungs and sinuses as possible going into race day. It seemed to do the trick, so long as I overlapped the medicine dosage juuuuust a tad. Surprisingly, neither of these 2 reasons are why I had such a bad race on race day.

I rolled off of my air mattress at Beth and Jordan's new house at approximately 4:55am and started my pre-race routine. Banana. Coffee. English muffin with peanut butter. Let the magic happen. Get dressed. And ready to go. The college crew had relaxed over the years and they didn't seem as antsy as I was to get to the race site, so I hopped in the car and told them I'd see them there. {Turned out to be the best decision. Beth, Jordan, and Brian left about 10 minutes after me and barely made the start of the race. Yikes}

I parked the car and met up with Jacqui (who was considered an Elite so had her own little private room in the iHotel) and we took off for a short little warm up together. We both got a little reminiscent as we ran through familiar parts of town and eventually spotted the track. Jacqui competed on that track in college while I admired her. I still couldn't help but be a tad emotional.

Perfect morning at the Alma Mater!
I made my way to the starting corrals after I dropped my bag off and let myself relax as much as possible. At one point I turned my head and looked straight ahead of me and I was practically face to face with Tatyana McFadden. She was an arms length in front of me as she wheeled into position for the start of her race. My jaw dropped as I admired the broadness of her shoulders and enormity of her upper body strength. Anything you've seen on TV or in pictures doesn't do her physique justice in person. The women is truly a machine. 

The head wind was coming in from the North, but being short in a corral full of tall, thin men has it's advantages. I tucked in behind the 3:05 pace group because all of the men seemed to hide me from the wind pretty well. The national anthem played and before I knew it, we were off. 

I came out of the gates and knew instantly the pace was to fast. I dialed it back right away and choked back a lump in my throat as a I ran under the American flag, hung on the corner of 1st and Kirby by 2 fire trucks, ladders fully extended. It's a site that I'll never forget. And one of my favorite parts of this entire race. I got comfortable and started to glance around me. Where are all the women? I don't understand. Shortly after I began to wonder, I saw looked up and saw that I hadn't quite gotten rid of the 3:05 pace group like I had planned on. I was  cruisin' with all the 18-34 year old men trying to BQ. Of course you're the only female in this group Megan. I passed my old apartment on 1st and Daniel and immediately my watch beeped. 7:13. A few seconds faster than I'd hoped for, but onto the next mile. 

We turned right onto Green St. and into the sunshine and I was hoping I'd be in my groove at this point in the race. I was maining the 7:15-7:20 pace I needed, but every single step felt HARD. I convinced myself I wasn't completely warmed up yet and by mile 3 I'd be ready to cruise. 

SIDENOTE: Running down Green St. had me all sorts of nostalgic. Station? Ummmm how does anyone get in that bar right now? Construction practically up to the front door and you have to climb dirt mounds just to get in. Can you imagine that place around midnight on a Saturday night? Then Starbucks. Nowadays, I cruise through a Starbucks drivethru and walk away with a black hot coffee. I ran by this Starbucks and instantly I had memories of Vanilla Lattes with books on books during study groups. I could practically taste the Vanilla syrup. Rob's old apartment building. 309 E. Green St tower. Back in the day, the only highrise in town. Now... 1 among many. Gameday Spirit seemed to have received a facelift as well. Once we hit Green and Wright St, the construction hit once again and we were taken to 1 lane. Wow, this could get crowded farther back in the packs. Hell, how do 2 cars drive on this section of Green St!? It's gotta be a 1 way right here! 

Thankfully I had enough to distract me during mile 2, so my 7:17 didn't feel quite as labored. But once we hit Urbana, my struggle set back in. I cruised through the streets of downtown Urbana and honestly, everything is kind of a blur. At one point I remember around mile 4 or 5 I got passed by Abe Lincoln. Yes, that's correct. A man dress like Honest Abe passed me. A few times throughout the streets of Urbana I heard a few "Go RyBread!" cheers. I have no idea where they came from, or who they came from. But they definitely put a hop in my step when I needed it (as short lived as it might have been.) I held pretty strong through mile 7. Once I got to mile 8 (through the park), my legs decided they were done charging. Slowly I dipped into the 7:45 range and held on for a few miles. Everything was a struggle. Breathing. All of it.

Once I exited the park, my spirit was officially broken when I saw a photographer at the top of a small hill and I was doing everything I could to make sure I didn't appear to be walking up the hill. 

Lemme tell ya about this thing called the struggle bus..
I know I've said it a milllion times, that SO much can happen during a race. You can't check out until the finish line. But in this case, I knew for a fact my legs weren't going to let me do what I wanted to do today. I had 4 miles left when I decided to run "comfortable" to the finish line in and effort to save myself from injury. Sometimes, it's best to listen when the body says no. I made my way back onto campus down Race St and then down Pennsylvania and ran by my old dorm. I heard my name around mile 11 from a spectator, a girl that I had ONE class with in college. I looked up, spotted her, and couldn't believe my eyes so let out a small laugh in response. Any other type of response would have required to much energy, 

We made it back to the heart of campus and I saw buildings like The Armory, The Sixpack, and Huff Hall. Nostalgia started to creep back, but this time the effects weren't quite as great. I rounded the corner and took my first steps onto the turf of Memorial Stadium and crossed that finish line in an hour and 42 minutes. 

 Speaks for itself.

If I had felt like I usually do, this guy WOULDN'T have finished ahead of me

All the pain.
I crossed that finish line and had no one. Rob wasn't able to make the trip due to work, Jacqui had finished the race but was likely halfway back to the Elite room, and the rest of my friends were still on the course. I grabbed my medal and a water. I went to gear check and grabbed my bag. And then I sobbed. I sobbed like a baby. I called my parents and my brother and sobbed to them. After all of the hard work I have put in, my body just decided that today wasn't meant for me. I know, it's silly. I ran a very respectable time and for the first 8 miles I ran the race I planned. 

BUT, it never felt smooth in the beginning. 

It never felt fluid. 

Nothing hurt, my hamstring actually felt wonderful. My allergies weren't to bad at all and I actually had both airways available for breathing that morning. 

My breathing never reached that steady rhythm that it usually does.

The weather was perfect, the wind was a bit strong at times but it never lasted to long. 

For whatever reason, I had a day. 

Later on that day I spoke with Ryan. He had just crossed the finish line of IMTX in a blazing 8:17 taking home the Amatuer title. A race of a lifetime, some might call it. I felt like the worst friend in the world, but I cried over the phone to him again. His perfect day ended with my tears and that made me feel even worse. He assured me, "Your fitness is there. It's good that you decided to listen to the body and back off. No, you don't need to race again before Grandma's." And the part that truly hit home was this, "Trust me, I know how frustrating this kind of race is. I have more of these races than any other." You might wonder how in the hell this is possible, the man is practically a machine! But it's all relative. He might be blazing fast, so every race he does looks like a winner in our books. But to him, not quite so. 

It's been a hard adjustment for me this winter. One I didn't quite expect. I knew things would hurt from time to time. I knew I'd be in for some lung burning. But what I didn't expect was to have SUCH disappointing results for this particular race. My body has grown accustomed to SBR {Swim, Bike, Run}, and in that order. My legs sometimes feel foreign to me as I head out for a run that DOESN'T immediately follow a bike ride. But that's not an excuse, I was a runner before I was a triathlete. But, I've learned a thing or 2 from this experience. 
  1. Running BEATS up the body like you wouldn't believe. No, not my knees. Those are still in tact. The little things. Tight muscles need ALL the attention. Foam rolling and time in my Normatec boots is a MUST. And sometimes, actual time away from your running shoes is just what you need. Active recovery isn't always best when your primary focus is to RUN. 
  2. You're going to have more lows than highs in the running world. In triathlon, there are so many different ways your day can go right or wrong. The run is just 1 fraction of that experience. If you have a terrible 1st half of a run, but the rest of your race is flawless, you can still cross that finish line accomplishing whatever goal you set out to do. In the running world, it's Right, Left, Repeat. One thing might go wrong and you have to be DAMN prepared with that mental game....
  3. Which brings me to number 3. Mental. Endurance in general is a mental beast. Trust me, I know. I've crossed 6 Ironman finish lines. But this running thing? Talk about a test. I have less than 50 days before Grandma's marathon and the biggest challenge I have ahead of my lies between my ears. 
I stood at that finish line and watched the first of my friends to cross. I found Beth, squeezed her tight and congratulated her on a fantastic PR! We waited for the rest of our group with smiles on our faces. I wasn't about to let my bad day ruin their great success stories of the day. We continued to enjoy the day outside, soaking up the sun, enjoying each others company, and catching up on life. These are the people I don't get to see nearly enough anymore. But everytime I see them, I'm reminded how MUCH MORE of them I need in my life. 

Brian ran in a 20lb weighted vest to raise money for Miseracordia
Sub 2 hour half!
Great success!
The "short" friends
"Hurry let's get a picture before the tall people finish and make us feel like midgets"
I rest my case.
Once more because 💗
Another sidenote: I took my Normatec boots with me on the trip and of course let everyone use them post-race. I'm not quite sure who enjoyed them more, but the picture below.. it's why I love this girl. 

And to top it off, I gained a couple Bridesmaids that weekend. Jacqui, closest thing to my twin over the last couple of years, said "yes" on the car ride down to Champaign on Friday night. And Beth and Heather, 2 of the worlds greatest college roommates turned best friends turned practically sisters, they agreed to stand next to me the day I say "I do." It was kind of fun and special to be able to ask them that particular weekend. Because exactly 6 years ago on the same weekend (Illinois Marathon weekend), Heather asked both Beth and I to stand for her wedding. I guess you could say it was a little dejavu for sure. 

I still have a lot of work to do before Grandma's. Mentally and physically. A lot can still happen and I know what I've got to do in order to see the success I plan for. Cross all your fingers and your toes, say your prayers, and send me all the good vibes. Because the good Lord knows I'm sure as hell gonna need it come race day. 


Friday, April 27, 2018

Tell the World I'm Comin' Home

If ever there was a week where emotions were all over the place... this is the week.

Two years ago, I won a free Ironman entry and used it to race Ironman Texas with Jacqui and Ryan. An unforeseen hailstorm/monsoon took over the run course, knocking down the finish line, finish shoot, and ultimately stopping parts of the race until the weather passed. I decided I wasn't done with Texas just yet. Last year, I toed the line again. This time just Ryan and myself. I ended up puking up my insides multiples times on the bike and run course after the extremely dirty swim canal portion of the course poisoned me. At the time, I swore off Ironman Texas forever. But I can't help but feel like I still haven't finished what I've started down in The Woodlands, Texas. Tomorrow is Ironman Texas. Spoiler Alert: I'm not racing Ironman Texas this weekend.

This winter, I made the decision to devote 2018 to getting faster on the run. That didn't mean letting my bike collect dust. I still bike and swim 3 times a week, but with less intensity. My runs however, talk about a wake up call. My legs have entered a whole new arena and every day I learn something different about my run legs (that have been running for 20+ years). BQ or bust has become the motto for this year, the big test will take place in June at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. We're about 8 weeks out from Grandma's and I've decided to see where my speed lies in the half marathon distance this weekend. I'm headed back home to the Alma Mater, Champaign, Illinois. My junior year at the University of Illinois was the Inaugural year for the Illinois Marathon Weekend. That particular year I ran the relay with a group of friends. My senior year I ran my first marathon and crossed the finish line on the 50 yard line of Memorial Stadium and then graduated 2 weeks later. For about 3 years after I graduated, my college group met back in Champaign and toed the line and then pretended like we were still in college. To say this race holds some sentimental value would be an understatement. It's been about 5 years since the band has met up at our old stompin' grounds. Until today.

That one time Rob ran his first Half Marathon and made the front page of the local paper ;)
Illinois Half Marathon 2012

Illinois Marathon
Circa 2010, mile 2 of my first marathon as a college Senior

There's nothing more I want than to head back to my home away from home and enjoy a weekend full of running highs and celebratory beers with a group of friends that I don't get to see nearly enough. I want to run by the Alma Mater on Green St and feel her welcoming me back home. I want to drive by my old dorm and peer up to the 8th floor and wonder if the the drama is still thick as hell that high off the ground. I want to knock on my old apartment door with the best roommates a girl could ever ask for and inspect the cleanliness of it now (because God knows we had the damn cleanest place on campus). I want to roam campus and take in the beauty. I want to walk into one of my favorite book stores and have an internal argument with myself over how much new Illini gear I really do need. I want to go to my favorite watering hole and order a beer for dirt cheap while I sit and wonder, "Just how many people in this bar are ACTUALLY 21 right now?" And so much more.

Post race of my first marathon - trying to hobble to the family!

Inaugural Illinois Marathon Weekend 2009 (junior year)
Ricky, Megan, Brian (full Marathon), Kevin and Jordan
Relay Team Name: The 3 Cocksmen and A Pretty Cool Chick 🙄

But. There's always a but. This whole week, my mind and my heart have been split in 2. This time last year you were on a plane to meet Ryan in the Woodlands. This time last year you were checking in your bike. This time last year you were sitting at dinner when Dad and Uncle JB surprised you from the corner of the restaurant. We all know how Ironman Texas ended for me last year. In the past 3 weeks I've thought alot about "what were you doing at this time last year." No, not because I'm stuck in the past and can't move on. But because I have some serious unfinished business in Texas. I won't be jumping into Lake Woodlands this year, or even next year. But one day. One day I'll be back to finish what I started. I've stared at my bike a lot this winter  from my yoga mat while I stretch after a run. I miss Matilda more than I ever thought I would. I miss the wobbling sensation you feel as you hop off after a killer workout that pushed some watts only refrigerators should know exist. And the pool. Oh the pool. While I'm still swimming, my arms never feel like noodles anymore. I miss my noodle arms. I miss the odd things about triathlon that you hate in the moment. 

I miss the sea of swim caps. Who knew?

This 💖
Ironman Texas finish line 2017

I told Ryan the other day that the fact that I'm not signed up for a single triathlon at the moment seriously makes me sad. 
"Triathlons aren't going anywhere. Eyes on the prize!" - Speedy G
We practically said the same phrase in sync. I know what I want and I'm going after it. But I'll be damned if it's not harder than ever to not want what I can't have at the moment. But the reality is I'm more excited that I'm currently driving to Champaign, IL with Jacqui instead of checking in my bike in The Woodlands, Texas. My time will come again in the Ironman and triathlon world, maybe sooner than later or later than sooner, who knows. But there's no time like the present. And I can't wait to see what my legs can do tomorrow morning. The last time my legs touched this course I was still your runner who trained with miles logged instead of speed workouts and intensity. I've seen the beauty of this campus more than enough. Tomorrow, I'm ready to see it in a blur as I fly by. I want to greet the winds of the South Farms with open arms (well, more like closed because that wouldn't be aero, right Speedy? 🤣). 

And in all honesty, I can't wait to see what post-race will look like for my college group at the ripe old age of 29-30. Because back when we were in our prime, we hosted the classiest of events named "Short Shorts and Favorite Sports", where all attendees were required to wear the shortest shorts they owned with their favorite sports jersey. Of course we served the finest of beverages as well. 

Yes, Rob is wearing a pair of my running shorts

My partner in crime in the 217 area code 
This year, my partner in crime, Beth and her husband Jordan, have opened up their home to us. Yes, as of very recently, they are officially full time residents of 217 area code. Beth can't get enough of academia as she is now employed by the University of Illinois, of course involved with all things science and business. So I guess you could say, I can technically head back "home" whenever I feel like it.

And who knows, maybe I'll convince Rob to run the Half Marathon again!
Rob, Me, Beth post Half Marathon in 2012
And of course this week of all weeks my VERY NEWLY acquired allergies have decided to make quite the appearance, making me sound like a man at times. Not to worry, I have purchased some solid stock in Allegra D which will be enough to get me through the race with minimal flem. Along with an annoying flare up of my IT band/hamstring/we're not sure what muscle is so tight right now. I've had my pre-race massage and I've taken my RnR this week to make sure all systems are a go. My bags are packed, Jacqui and I are on the road, (with coffee of course), and the fun is awaiting our arrival. 

Stay tuned. Cheers.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Green Guys

If you've run the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle in the last 11 years, chances are you've seen one of the infamous Green Guys running through The Loop.  Confused? Let me enlighten you:

Yea, I wasn't kidding. All the G R E E N 💚
I'm very proud to state that these incognito people are my friends, one my brother. In reality, I envy them and their courage to run the streets of Chicago in March half naked. 

But Megan.. What? Why..? I'm so confused.. Just.. huh? 

Right, I know. I was in the same boat the first time I saw these guys floating across my TV screen while I sat on my bike, pedaling away on a Sunday morning training for Ironman Wisconsin circa 2014. 

Let's back up. I met John Atchison and his wife in 2015 at the Egg Shell Shuffle, all of us volunteering our time for good friends Jacqui and Ryan (Mr. And Mrs. Speedy). Less than 3 months later, we were signed up to race across the country together in Lake Placid, New York. In reality, I had "known" John for a while, I just had no idea. John proposed to his wife Brittany the morning of my first Ironman in Madison, Wisconsin. John and I were both racing. I got out of the water and proceeded to my bike. John got out of the water and snagged a ring from Ryan and popped the question to Brittany on the helix. Ryan had told me about the plan millions of times. "I'm sorry I can't see you before the race starts, I have to save a spot on the helix!" Fast forward to the run and I remember seeing a guy running on the course wearing a tuxedo. Oh, that's Ryan's friend John. He proposed this morning! This guy, I knew before I "knew" him. He's all about the fun and makin' memories. And his large heart was clearly evident. It should have been no surprise to me that this was the same guy I saw running across my TV screen in March, completely covered in green body paint at the Shamrock Shuffle. 

Back in 2008, John convinced long time friend Ryan to invest in an $8 container of paint, a green afro wig, and a pair of green tights to run the Shamrock Shuffle. I can't tell you if it was a long conversation or not, but I can tell you that that's how the Green Guys were born. 

Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 2008
And the rest is history. Over the years, John has recruited a few of his closest friends to run alongside him during the kick off to Chicago's racing scene. The only constant over the years has been John himself. 2009 resulted in blizzard-like conditions, easily the worst weather he's ever had to run {naked} in. 

RJ Pucci, Oscar Munoz, John Atchison, Ryan Giuliano
The Green Guys multiplied over the years, the painting got a little easier each time, and the look started to make a name for itself. They began to be noticed as "The Green Guys." Walking around before or after the race proved to be difficult, photo opportunities aplenty with every stranger they encountered. 

In 2014 the first Green Girl was added to the lineup. John will tell you this might have been a turning point for The Green Guys. At the time, John had convinced his princess to paint herself green and run the streets of Chicago. 

RJ Pucci, Oscar Munoz, Brittany Sorensen, John Atchison
Little did she know she'd soon be married into this crazy tradition. 

2015, just a few months prior to the Wedding Bells!
At some point during all of this Green, The Bank of America noticed The Green Guys. Enough so that this happened: 

Yes, that is the entrance to Shamrock Shuffle expo. And yes, those are my green friends faces greeting every.single.person that walks in the door. 

2016 - John, Brittany, RJ
I mean, how cool? 
I guess you could say this was practically a dream come true for John. What you don't know is that he's a physical education teacher in the Chicago Public School system. He spends day in and day out trying to make America's youth as active as he can. For years, he had painted himself green to run a race and maybe just inspire a student or 2 along the way. "Green means go! Go out, have fun, be healthy and enjoy life!" Yea, that's The Green Guy's motto. 

Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, 2017 happened. It made the papers and John still raves about it to this day: 

"GUYS! I was the first to the Pedestrian Bridge! Photo proof!"
2017 Shamrock Shuffle starting line
Cruisin' with the elites 🏃
And that brings us to present day. John convinced a few others to join his posse, my brother included. When I found out that the Mark was joining in the fun, I decided to sherpa/spectate/document this Green Guy process. I pulled out of my driveway at 4am, parked my car at 5am, walked into The Chicago Hilton at 5:15am, knocked on The Green Guys door at 5:17am, and by 5:30am the painting started.

5 people in a tiny Chicago hotel bathroom
Good thing we're all friends

Somehow these 2 snagged their own bathroom?
I learned a lot in the hour and a half it took everyone to get ready. I learned that 3 fingers dipped into a cup of water works best to moisten the paint. I learned that circular motions make for the most even green appearance. I learned that this process is one of the cleanest.

And to think... John used to do this at his own house!

It's like a leprechaun peed everywhere!
Finally, it came time to head down to the race start. John huddled everyone together and said, "Alright, here are the rules!" Rules? What's he talking about? "When we get into the lobby of the hotel, you can take pictures with people if they ask. At some point we'll have to leave, but some pictures are ok right now." You gotta be kidding me smalls, this is gonna be like walking around with a celebrity. And that it was.

Because they're classy
I couldn't believe how people swarmed them. "Can I have a picture with you? Oh please, one more! This is so cool!" I stood in the background and watched as the 6 of them entertained the guests of the Chicago Hilton. Eventually it was time to depart. We had to make our way to the Elite tent and meet up with newest Green Girl Amanda McGrory, 7x Paralympic Medalist. Yep, this just got REAL. 

Once again, John had to lay out the rules. "Alright, as soon as we walk out the doors, we BOOK IT to the tent! It's COLD! Stop for no one! Take no pictures! JUST GO!" 

And that we did. We walked outside and the wind cut through me like a knife, and I was wearing all the layers. Shrieks filled the air on Michigan Avenue as we all sprinted down the street and played frogger the entire half mile to the tent. Once inside, I immediately started to sweat bullets while everyone else hugged the heaters that were keeping the tent warm. We found Amanda, said hello, and then made our way to the start line for our photo opportunity. 

They're all muscles in a heated tent.
Caveat, I was nervous as soon as we left the hotel. I didn't have a race bib. I didn't have any official credentials. I was just their sidekick. After the Boston Marathon bombings, race security it always very tight and I was convinced that I would be held back at some point. Except, security allowed me all the way to the starting line, hassle free.

Once more, because it just makes me smile so💚💚💚
Eric, Brittany, Mark, RJ, John, Matt and Amanda in the front!
They even let me sneak in for a group photo!

"Hey coach, is this aero?"
The originator and his beautiful Green Bride 
Mark and I 
Brittany christened me with Green war paint

Eventually, it was time for me to say my goodbyes and find my spot on the bridge for the starting line photo. I was a little happy to be moving, but not so happy to be in the wide open wind. I got to my position at 8:15, plenty of time to spare (and for my fingers to go numb). Soon the gun went off and the wheelchair athletes took off first, followed by the elites. It was time to play where's waldo! 

Amanda, leading the wheelchair race!


This was an event I wasn't 100% sure I'd attend when Mark made plans to race. Rob and I had originally tried to look at wedding venues that weekend, but the plans fell through. So off to the race I went. And after witnessing what I saw, I couldn't imagine missing it. 

I've heard about The Green Guys a lot, seen all the pictures, and laughed at every story over the years. But it wasn't until I SAW the process, the enthusiasm they have, the joy they ooze, and the memories they create for thousands of people. It wasn't until then that I truly understood The Green Guys. They're a passionate bunch that lace up their shoes and paint themselves green year after year for the love of the sport. They reminded me that this sport and community is one not to be reckoned with. To them, Green means Go. So let's all pull a Green Guy today and GO.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

March Madness: When Emotions Run High

I'm honestly not sure how many times I've run this race, but this will be my 3rd time writing about it. And I'm not gonna lie, the keystrokes feel like dejavu every time.

I always take off faster than I should (even though I was given permission to "bank time" this year by Speedy). I always convince myself around mile 11 that "it's just not my day" and that any sort of success story for the day is off the radar. I always walk away from this race limping for days, fearful of the stairs. I always build this day up more than most would expect. And in the most recent years, I always walk away so.damn.emotional.

This year has girl had *something* to do with the emotional part
Ryan has been working his magic on my legs thus far this winter. Their first test: March Madness Half Marathon. I won't lie, I bow down to those that are full bred runners. I know that the worst is still to come, but I still can't imagine the past 12 weeks without my recovery rides on Sunday afternoons and multiple swims a week to keep my body in check after some wicked speedwork that will damn well keep you honest and humble. Yes, I'm still "young." But not necessarily for someone who has 20 years of running under their belt, still trying to get faster and faster. At some point, things just hurt all the time. Waking up in the morning takes a few extra stretches and a little more caffeine. Needless to say, it's been a fun game of "is that hurt, sore, tight, or just a muscle that's getting old?" all winter. 

Ryan never truly asked me about my goals going into March Madness. At one point we had discussed the opportunity of a PR, but as it got closer and closer I think we both knew deep down that the chances were slim. The mountains of Cary, IL are no joke and would require some Hogwarts magic. The week before we both agreed that a COURSE PR wasn't out of the question at all and likely the most realistic option. Sub 1:40 or bust (aka - sub 7:38/mile or better).

Kati and I took off for a few warm up miles with Todd (Strugglebus member). The 2 had never met, but were quickly acquainted over those 2 miles. We ran back inside to drop our sweats, slurp down a gel, and snag our Speedy friends (Jacqui and Ryan) before heading out to the starting line. 

Repeat after me: I will not cry. I will not cry.
With seconds to spare, the 3 RyBread ladies of the group toed the line and all choked back a lump in our throats. You see, exactly a year ago this is where Jacqui and I were formally introduced to Kati as she joined the RyBread team. It's been a year of ups and downs and tears and laughs and everything in between. And today, today was Kati's last race as an Illinois resident. Her bags are packed and her story continues in Golden, Colorado in a few short days. Now, now you see why these final 13 miles hold some serious sentiment.

The gun went off as Kati and I were lost in conversation with her Fleet Feet friends and we simultaneously yelled, "OH SHIT!" as we started our watches. 

Todd and I locked eyes as we took our first steps over the start line and made sure to hang tight to each other. In years past, we're good at hanging out together for as long as possible during this race. But every year it's a mystery: who will drop who and when will it happen? Last year we couldn't run together, but 2 years ago I dropped him at mile 8. I'd be lying if I didn't secretly want that to happen again.

Mile 1: 7:08 
Adrenaline movin'. Spectators all along the course. Very steady downhill. The fact that I kept this mile over 7 minutes is damn near a miracle. 

Mile 2: 7:06
Todd and I speak very little as we race. But just after we crossed mile 1 he glanced over at me and said, "How was that?" I responded with, "Perfect. Let's keep it right here for a few more miles." And that we did. We continued to work our way downhill and took full advantage of topography being on our side. 

Mile 3: 7:12
The famous "10 mile hill" in reverse. This is where you bank all the time you can. Todd is better at letting his legs go out of control on the downhills, so his stride separated us briefly. Once we found the bottom, we reunited and hung a left, the real fun about to begin.

Mile 4 7:24
A very gradual incline for an entire mile, mile 4 is very deceiving. Your adrenaline is still flowing mighty strong from the start and flying down 10 mile hill, but you don't realize that you're actually climbing the entire mile. I still felt very strong, but knew that my "fast" miles were about over and it was time to lock into the pace I wanted to maintain the rest of the race. Todd, on the other hand, looked about as fresh as I've ever seen him. {Full disclosure: Todd has turned himself into a full blown ultra trail runner. His training takes place in all the forests and his speed never goes over an 8 minute mile on a fast day. How was he holding strong? My mind was blown. Surely he'll be down for the count soon.}

Mile 5 7:30
Just after we made the right hand turn onto Rawson Bridge Road, I knew it was time to dial it back and settle into my comfort zone. Within seconds of telling Todd it was time for me fall back, long time friend Andrew blew past me and found Todd. The 2 of them chatted and took off together. I kept them in my sights for quite a few miles afterwards. I was perfectly content getting comfy and hopefully finding Todd later on in the race.

Mile 6 7:40
The first decent climb kicked my ass {glanced at my watch at one point and read 8:50 pace} but cruised on the downhill. I'm officially in the thick of the hills and there's no turning back now.

Mile 7:46
Sneaky hill. Gets me every single time. A quick left into a neighborhood followed by an immediate right greets you with the maybe the steepest hill McHenry county has to offer. And it's a b*tch. Found my groove after getting back out onto Crystal Lake Road. The recovery is short because the next one comes quick and isn't any better.

Mile 8 7:39 
Substantial hill reminds me of a large skating ramp. Banked and curved. And never seems to end. But the volunteers handing out gels on the side of the road help the pain and seem to distract me. And as soon as you reach the top, you can start flying downhill and making your way towards the fastest mile of the course. And once I reached the bottom of the hill I spotted Mark, waving and cheering. I did my best to look alive. Great success.

I didn't promise pretty pictures.
PS - a small part of me hates this race because look how pasty I am!
At least you can't see the pain from the back. 
Mile 9 7:22
A very steady decline with the wind (usually) at your back, this mile can be the fastest of the day if you play your cards right. I definitely did some major work to put some time back into the bank. I was hoping for high 7's but was very satisfied with a sub 7:30. Although, the entire time you're running mile 9 you can see mile 10. And mile 10 takes no prisoners. 

Mile 10 7:57
Fully expected. Fully prepared to take the hit. This is why you bank as much time as you can in the early miles. Mile 10 offers the same hill that we flew down during mile 3, a quarter mile of hell. It never ends and will humble the cockiest of souls. I made sure to reserve, short and quick steps up the hill. Let yourself go slow, conserve for the end. The water station at the top of the hill greeted me like the Pearly Gates and I was ready to tackle these final 3 miles. 

Mile 11 8:08
No matter what I did I could not find my groove. The hills are fierce and aggressive these last 3 miles, but I felt like I was throwing down MUCH faster than an 8 minute mile. My body wasn't responding. Shit. Maybe this isn't your day. You don't have enough time in the back for a COURSE PR if you keep this up. Hell, you're not Boston material if you can't get your shit together. Might as well take up chess, Megan. 

Mile 12 8:07
This hill isn't officially named, but if I had to name it I'd call it "WTF WHERE'S MY BREAK?" hill. I felt like I was crawling. I glanced at my watch and technically, I was. Seriously why the hell do I think this is fun? This is miserable. 

Mile 13 7:44
This last mile is decent, nothing drastic at all. But your body is literally shot from the first 12 miles. Once my watch clicked at 12 miles and I saw the overall time (1:31) I did some quick math in my head and knew that 1.1 miles in 8 minutes and change was doable if I got my head out of my ass. And I did. Pretty sure my heart rate reached an all time high that last mile (including all the climbing) but it was worth it. 

Sorry dude, you don't get to cross before me
Told ya.

Official time: 1:39:47. Plenty of time to spare. I crossed the finish line and Ryan was there almost instantly to greet me. I huffed and puffed while he talked my ear off. All I did was flash him my watch so he could see: Sub 1:40 or bust. I made it happen. Moments later Kati and Jacqui were on the fence with me, congratulating me and demanding a cool down run right away. I found Todd and congratulated him on his 1:36 (seriously, how does that happen when training for a 50 mile trail race?) and asked him if he'd want to come with us for a cool down. He immediately declined and said his goodbyes. The Strugglebus is good at ghosting these days, no post race goodies or anything. I wasn't kidding, they do everything they can to race and get back home to the family right away. I spotted Russ on my cooldown and tried to run him into the finish line, but my body instantly rejected any pace over a 9:30. I let him finish this one up on his own.

Those hills really did a number on me this year. In case you're curious, this is the elevation map:

Who knew there were mountains in Cary, IL?
Celebrations continued with the group while we dissected our races over hot stadium style pretzels (probably the only reason I keep coming back year after year) and then over brunch. 

This is why we can't have nice things, Mark
Jacqui: 1st female!
Kati: 4th female!
Ryan: 1st male!
Me: 3rd place in age group!

Also, might you note our newest and shiniest accessory? Those new RyBread coats are courtesy of Kati. She thought up the plan and made it happen. And now, RyBread Racing is flashy and official in our brand new warm up jackets (that also reflect like crazy, we glow in the dark!)

Because we're cool now
We continued the fun at breakfast and lingered as long as possible. No one really wanted the morning to end. Saying goodbye for the day also meant saying goodbye to Kati. I'm proud to report, there were no tears (in front of the group) and we all have a day on the calendar that we'll see her again soon. I made sure to send her off with Suburbia's best donuts (because this girl is a donut connoisseur like you wouldn't believe) and the biggest hug. I've said it once and I'll say it again. I'm convinced that people are brought into your life for a reason and I know for a fact that Kati was truly a blessing when I needed it most. I already have Chicago --> Denver on hopper ready to give me the best deals at at a moment's notice. Certainly distance makes the heart grow fonder, yes? 

Told ya she's legit
As far as the racing scene goes, I couldn't be happier with my results. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I raced smart, hard, and with everything I had. I was reminded that mental toughness is finding fuel in an empty tank. Success at this race was a step in the right direction because now I can officially dive head first into marathon training with the right mindset. 

Wait what? You mean official marathon training hasn't started yet? Please, the fun is just getting started. As of today, Grandma's Marathon on June 16th is 12 weeks again. I'll have one more test before the big BQ attempt. I'm so excited to say that I'm headed back to college town, USA. The band is getting back together again and reliving the glory days in Champaign, IL at the Illinois Half Marathon in April. 

Alma, get ready for me. I'm comin' home.