SHORT VERSION: 3:50 at one of the toughest road marathons around, pacing someone I coach was a truly a phenomenal, emotional experience.
Shannon texted me in late April asking me how Grandfather Mountain Marathon would be. I thought... 18 years old. First marathon. One of the toughest road marathons around. Only 10 weeks to train. In contention for state title in 4x800 & spot in the 3200m (thus 4 more weeks of track where we couldn't disrupt her training with really long runs). Longest run ever was 13. History of chronic injury.
So my answer, "Sure, why not?" Shannon had a chance to run in college but decided to go a different route. Because despite all of those obstacles, Shannon is one of the toughest, most determined people I know. She's not demonstrative at all and you would never know how driven she is until you're around her awhile. Having had the privilege to coach her for 4 years, I have seen her grow incredibly, shared a lot with her and have made a real connection that I expect to last a long time to come. By the way, this is a girl who came in as a 9th grader running 28:00 5Ks, dropped to 23:30 at the end of the season, and was in the mid 19s this year. She has had to work HARD for everything. I respect that.
Shannon's training has been going really well. We had to put her on a crash course in the 7 weeks since the state track meet. Her fitness & speed was already fantastic but we needed to get some long runs in there. She ran 12, 14, 16, 18 & a couple of other 10-14s in there. It wasn't ideal marathon training, but I felt like it was the best we could do in 7 weeks. I never told her long runs are supposed to be slower and never told her a marathon is scary. I didn't want her to be intimidated. We'd get done with a long run and I'd think, "Hmm... 7:45 miles... this girl is going to KILL the marathon." About 3 weeks ago, she had some pain in her foot. Still had the pain the week of the race.
I've had some severe achilles pain for 3 weeks. Ran the marathon in Seattle on it and really had to be like Patrick Swayze & tell myself "Pain don't hurt." It's hurt every step for 3 weeks though. I didn't care how it effected my race in Seattle and was determined to get through it. I was really nervous, however about how it would effect me at Grandfather Mt. I felt a huge responsibility to Shannon- to be there for her and get her through this race. I didn't bother telling her the ins & outs of marathoning because I thought it would make her nervous. I thought I'd just tell her as we went along. I knew my biggest job would be to SLOW HER DOWN in the first 18 miles.
It was. I told her 50 times it seemed. "Ease up." "Let's back off a little." "Hey, slow down." Finally, at mile 14 or so, I got a little frustrated as she pulled ahead of me. "Seriously, we're halfway done, but you've got to slow down. This is a critical time of the race- like mile 2 of a 5K. We have to still be conservative so we have something left later." Keep in mind, this was Shannon's first road race of any length & longest race over a Cross Country 5K!
The course starts on the track at Appalachian and is flat for the first mile or so. We talked a lot during the first 3 miles, but as the ground got more vertical, the talking ceased. I have loved my solo runs with Shannon, Chelsea & Mallary lately, and you usually can't get me to shut up. Hard runs with super serious discussions. I had all sorts of topics stored up for discussion, but man... the hills got to me. Neither one of us were able to talk. I'm amazed with how much comfortable silence we shared.
At mile 7, I felt a familiar feeling and made my way into the woods, telling Shannon I'd work hard to catch back up. Took about 1.5 miles of hard running to catch her. Stomach hurt all day. Achilles hurt all day. I tried not to talk about either. I was there as a coach and spectator, not as a runner. I was 100% there for her. No other reason. But I really felt rough. Didn't say anything because I didn't want to complain and didn't want to plant seeds in her head. ...and I was supposed to be the experienced sherpa getting her through this thing. In actuality, she helped me more than I helped her I feel. Gave me purpose and made it impossible for me to ease up and (literally) limp to the finish line.
At 16, we were at 2:15 and I said, "OK, we've got 10 more miles. If we run these in 9:00 miles even, we'll be home in an just an hour and a half. We're almost done." I knew the last 10 miles looked to be some of the roughest terrain, but still thought we'd be in under 4 hours, which was her goal. After those words of encouragement, I veered off into the woods again. Before I caught her again I had to go again. So we're talking about making up 4 minutes on a girl who won't slow down. Tall order. So I killed myself. At 20, I saw her on one of the few straight sections on the course (super windy mountain roads) but maybe 1:30 away. That gave me some hope. Went as hard as I could and I'm telling you- the endorphins were kicking. I freaked out on a couple of people as I passed. Frantically yelling, "I'm supposed to be pacing someone up here and I can't catch her! Can't stay out of the woods! Good job man!!! I gotta go get her!!!!!" When I got within 30 seconds of Shannon, I yelled and clapped. Finally I caught her a little after 21. And as quickly as I caught her, I had to go to the bathroom again. I told her good luck if I didn't see her again. Told her how amazing she was and how much I care about her & this accomplishment. Almost cried. I'm emotional. What can I say?
I was determined to catch her though. 90% of it was wanting to share the finishing moment with her but yeah, 10% of it was having to deal with certain members of my team making fun of me for getting beat by her. I went all out to catch her this time. "Only 4 (super steep) miles to go. What do I have to lose?" I caught her pretty quickly this time and was able to run the last 3 with her. Just before the 25 mile mark, I said, "Shan, do you care about catching her (woman ahead of us who we'd passed back & forth a couple of times.)?" She said she didn't. If she had said yes, I would've told her to go because I thought I was going to throw up from all of the hard efforts I had put in. "OK, then let's just relax, enjoy this last mile and kick when we see the finish line, OK?" She agreed.
We passed the woman anyway. In fact we passed a lot of people in the last 10 miles. As she wanted to pick it up at mile 6, mile 10, mile 14 because people were passing us, I assured her we'd pass most of them back and we did. We hadn't seen Stan all day though & as we're passing people pretty strongly, here he comes flying past like we're standing still. He later told me my bright yellow Brooks singlet was a target. I tell kids that all the time about uniforms that stand out! I always gain a lot of momentum passing people late in a race and lose a lot if I'm getting passed. I tried pointing out that to Shannon. Her response, "Yeah, but a lot of them were walking." HA! That counts double! :) We didn't walk a step during the race except through a few aid stations.
As you crest the last hill at the park entrance, you can hear the bagpipes of the Scottish Highland Games. I told her, "Let's go. It's time to kick." She said she didn't have anything. As we got onto the dirt road to the finishing track, I said, for the 10th time probably, "Shannon, you are incredible. This is an amazing accomplishment. I am so glad I can share this with you. Means so much to me." A few seconds later, "Shan, I'm going to cry." I did shed some tears. She wasn't lying when she said she didn't have anything left. She ran an absolutely BEAUTIFUL race. Hard to determine pace and effort in the mountains, but I would say there was never a spike or lull in effort/pace all day. Totally consistent. Mile 25 was just as strong as Mile 2. But yeah, she wasn't kicking. At all. She said she died, but not at all. She just maintained that 8:30 pace around the track, got passed by the woman we had passed earlier and finished one tenth of a second ahead of me. Awww, she beat me. ;)
She was 5th woman. 61st overall out of 360 people who finished under the cut off and 465 entrants (which tells me a lot of people didn't make it under the cut off or dropped out). 1st in 29 & under age group (I finished a tenth of a second behind her & was 21st in my age group!). 3:50:33 which is 8:48/mile on a pretty brutal course. Have I run tougher races? Of course, but never even close to a tougher road marathon. Point to point, 2000' of elevation gain. My guess is that you can take a flat marathon time & add 15-20 minutes to it which would put her at 3:30-35 and I projected she was about a 3:35 flat marathoner. There are downhills, but many more uphills of course. For her to pick this as a first marathon & run so flawlessly is... I'm just at a loss for adjectives. I have never run a race that went so smoothly as her's did- including this one! No one told me good luck or anything before this race- only, "Take care of Shannon." I'm glad. Even people who didn't know her told me that. That was my whole mindset and I feel bad I had to drop back a few times, but she pulled through. When I was done a few people asked me how I did. Seemed like a foreign concept. How I did?? Didn't even feel like I ran. Just there as a spectator.
But as for myself- achilles hurt bad. There were times I ran up hills with my foot positioned outward so it wouldn't hurt as much. There were times where I said, "Owww." There were a lot of times I was worried I wasn't going to make it with her. If I had been on my own running this, I may not have started because I know the achilles hurts most uphill. But if I did run alone, I would've been more aggressive which may or may not have paid off. Still I don't think I could've been much faster than 3:35 and on the other hand, could've been as far back as 4:05 without the responsibility I felt to catch up to Shannon. The day after, I'm not the least bit sore and my achilles actually feels the best its felt in 3 weeks!
Course is beautiful winding through mountain laurel, a few streams, rock formations, Price Lake... no real overlooks. Has the feel of a mountain trail race without the trail. I fell hard late in the race looking at a small waterfall. Who falls in a road marathon?? Roads aren't closed to traffic and a lot of people complain, but it didn't bother me at all. It was a cool 65 degrees, but really humid and foggy. Strange to be dripping sweat and wringing out your shorts when it's 65 degrees outside. This is one I will definitely run again, but one you have to be in shape to run. I can't imagine going out there not feeling ready and trying to fake it. Probably the most meaningful experience yet in what has been the best year of running I've ever had. ...keeping in mind I started running in 1981.