Me and Kat crossing the finish line at the Buffalo Marathon – Buffalo, New York. This picture encapsulates everything about the marathon. (Photo Credit: Diane Sardes)
Race: Buffalo Marathon
Place: Buffalo, New York
Date: May 25, 2014
“When you cross the finish line, no matter how slow or fast, it will change your life forever.” – Spirit of the Marathon
I want to point out the asterisks above, as this race was not one that I was running at my normal marathon pace. Nope. I agreed back in March to pace two of my friends, Kat and Janelle, to their hopes of a sub-4 finish in the Buffalo Marathon. This race was not about me or my goals…this was all about them. And I took this responsibility very seriously, mind you! I trained as I would if I were going to be the one racing…meaning all of my training runs I did as though I were running this race at my pace. I didn’t want to over-train or get cocky and think that I could run more because this race wasn’t going to be done at my “normal” pace. Nope. Like I said…I take my job as a pacer very, very seriously.
I know what you’re doing. You’re looking at that finish time and wondering what went wrong.
Well…I will get to that. And then I will reflect on what this race has taught me, in general, about the human spirit and the spirit of the marathon. But…let me start at the very beginning.
Fridays are usually hectic as it is, but this Friday just put me out-of-my-mind. I had tried to do most of my packing on Thursday, but I still had plenty to do that morning…plus a date with my spinning class at 5:30 a.m. Go figure. As I was racing on Sunday, I went to class, but kept the heavy down and just did what I was comfortable with. I didn’t want to wear out these legs. I had two people counting on me and I wasn’t about to let them down. I thought about skipping my class, but I figured I’d be in a car most of Saturday, so as long as I didn’t put too much resistance on the bike…I’d be fine.
I did manage to get everything packed up and loaded into the car. But I wasn’t Buffalo bound yet. New York was going to have to wait. I had to go to work for the entire day first. Then…then I could start my journey toward my sixth marathon this year. Whew. I headed into the office and made little to no use of my standing desk, once again, trying to keep as much pressure off these legs as possible. I wanted to get to that start line feeling ready and relaxed. It worked. I got through the entire work day without any issues, then packed up and headed out at 4:30 p.m. to head up to Columbus, Ohio. Jenn was going to make this journey with us for the marathon, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. YAY! But…this meant enduring the ride up to Columbus. But first…I stopped off at my local gluten-free bakery to pick up a pizza crust. I promised Kat, back when she was in town for the Kentucky Derby Festival Mini Marathon that I’d bring her one of Annie May’s Sweet Café’s amazing gluten-free pizza crusts. And…while we were there, Cathy and I each ordered a sandwich to go to eat in the car on the way up to Jenn’s. We might have also picked up one of her vegan and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies too. Maybe. Anyway, this plan to grab dinner worked out perfectly. An Annie May’s sandwich might be a new travel after work tradition.
Soon, we were on the road and making good time up to Columbus, Ohio. As we came through Cincinnati, Ohio, I asked Cathy if we were going to stop soon because the unsweetened iced tea and the water I had with dinner had gone right through me and I “really needed to pee.” TMI? Nah. Anyway, she said we’d stop at somewhere up the road…which turned into about an hour wait. Seriously. The information center she had wanted to stop at was closed…and already way further than I had hoped to go before I got my break. So…I was not happy. We finally pulled over at a gas station on the exit you would take if you were going to the Ohio Renaissance Festival. I went inside the BP and took care of business, only to be interrupted by a woman pounding on the door, declaring she had an emergency. Um…yeah…kinda busy…gotta wait. I peed as fast as I could…but she kept pounding and pissing me off. Do NOT piss off a runner who has been tapering. I washed my hands and hurried out of the bathroom, having her blow past me like I was doing it on purpose. UGH!! People suck.
Back on the road…and no more stops until we hit Jenn’s house somewhere around 9 p.m. Cathy and I changed out into more comfortable clothes and then we settled in to talk a bit and eat Jenn’s infamous (but to me it’s famous) Pink Salad. Mmmmm…just what I needed. Hit the freakin’ spot. I knew I needed to get up around 4 a.m. to do a shakeout run, stretch, shower, eat breakfast, and get out of the door in a timely manner to continue the journey up to Buffalo, New York on Saturday morning…so we were turning in earlier than normal.
My alarm went off at 4 a.m. and I immediately dropped my iPhone before I could turn it off. Whoops. I got up and got changed into my running clothes and headed out Jenn’s garage to do 3 very easy miles as a shakeout before my drive up for the marathon. I forgot that Jenn’s roads have storm drains in the center of the road, so those were some fun obstacles at first. HAHA! I finally just got off to the side, and ran a loop around her inner circle until I hit my miles for the day. I actually did it faster than I intended or felt like I was running…so my legs were definitely feeling good. I ducked back inside, shed the reflective gear and went to do my stretching. Jenn came down as I was finishing that up. And soon I was headed up to shower, wake up Cathy, and we were settling in for some gluten-free bagels for breakfast. Topped off with a Garlic and Herb cream cheese of deliciousness. It was like eating garlic bread. The car was loaded back up and we piled in…heading out for the long road to Buffalo, New York.
I was already tired from not sleeping much, so Jenn passed my pillow up and I dozed up until we made our first stop to put in some gas. There was a nice Starbucks attached to the gas station, so we all got one of their refreshers…mine…the Cool Lime (YUMMY!) before piling back into the car and making our way up to Erie, Pennsylvania. That was going to be our stop for lunch. Back when I ran the Hershey Half Marathon, we found a place called Picasso’s to eat dinner at on our way back to Jenn’s. They specialize in very unique sandwiches…and we fell in love with them. This was our lunch destination…and we got there just after they opened. We each got a sandwich and drink and settled in at a table. My Gluten-Free Venus de Milo Sandwich was fantastic. It was a combination of hummus, onions, baby spinach, tomato, muffaletta spread, carrots, avocado, and a roasted red pepper mayo, toasted on gluten-free bread (in the oven to keep it from being cross-contaminated). Seriously…delicious. Then, we ducked over to Wegmans (an awesome grocery store for those not familiar) to grab a few necessities for Sunday…like bananas and water and watermelon. Then…back on the road. Next stop…the Hyatt Regency Buffalo (the host hotel) where we were staying.
I had hoped to meet up with both Kat and Janelle at the the expo, but Kat was there earlier in the day and Janelle, honestly, was leaving as I was pulling in. Dang it. I was seeing Kat later that evening for dinner, but Janelle was not going to be able to make it. So, we all planned to meet up on Sunday morning with the 4 hour pace group. Deal. We pulled into the hotel and valet parked the car, hauling our stuff inside. I went to check in, and as I was running the marathon was gifted with a bottle of Gatorade. I signed a sneaker with how many marathons I had run and my best finishing time, was given two keys to the room (I gave them to Jenn and Cathy to handle…I am a zen runner on race weekends and want no responsibilities). We took our stuff up to the hotel room to drop it off and then headed out to walk through the walkways from the hotel to the expo center. Weirdly enough, there were no signs really directing anyone to where to find the expo…so we randomly followed some people and ended up making our way there. Let’s hear it for the blind leading the visually challenged!
Bart Yasso and me at the Buffalo Marathon Expo – Buffalo, New York
The expo was small. We stepped inside and I got in line to get a plastic bag that contained some race information and my safety pins. From there, I had to wind my way through the vendors and other races there to find the tables in the back where packet pickup was happening. I went over to the side for the marathon (there is also a 5K and a half marathon), and gave my name. The teenager behind the table looked me up, grabbed my race bib and race shirt and passed it over to me. I thanked him, tucked it into the plastic bag and went to meet Jenn and Cathy over at the BondiBand table. HA! They knew I’d want to make a stop there. We didn’t spend too long digging through the BondiBands as I own most of them (it’s a sickness…I know!)…but I found two that fit my personality and I ended up getting those. It’s tradition! You never break tradition. We wound our way back through, stopping off at a few interesting sounding races…all of which are on weekends that don’t work for me…this year…and ended up at Bart Yasso’s talk.
I LOVE Bart Yasso and really want to incorporate the Yasso 800’s into my training…eventually. We listened to him talk, and when he finished up, I went to see if he would sign my book (I brought it with me!) and maybe get a picture with him. There wasn’t a long line…and before long I was up there and talking with him. He remembered me from Facebook (HA!) and just asked if I spelled Karen with a “K.” That was awesome. He was very kind and wrote me a nice message before taking a picture with me and wishing me luck on Sunday. With that…we made our way out of the expo and back to our hotel room, where we crashed until about 4:15 p.m., watching Food Network (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives was on, followed by Guy’s Grocery Games). I took the time to do my evening stretches and some foam rolling so I wouldn’t have to worry about it after dinner and could focus more on getting race morning stuff together and getting to bed at a decent time.
All that did get accomplished before we headed back out to the streets of Buffalo and walked to our dinner destination, Merge, located on Delaware Avenue. We were early. The restaurant hadn’t even opened yet. But, we knew that would probably be the case. We left early to give us time to get lost and all. But at the first sense of us not knowing which way to go, Cathy asked the valet guys and we were immediately on track without the whole wander around town mess. Love nipping something in the bud. At 5 p.m., Kat and Adam (Kat’s boyfriend) arrived and we went inside for our dinner reservation. We were immediately seated and asked if we wanted something other than water to drink. I don’t do anything but water these days as it is…so I stuck with that. Then…it was menu time. I had looked at this menu DOZENS of times before…and I knew there was a gluten-free and vegan pizza option. That’s my traditional food before a race…but there were so many enticing dishes on this menu that I couldn’t get anywhere else…and I get good gluten-free pizza in Louisville. SO…now I was waffling on what I wanted for dinner and everyone else was ready. With the assistance of the waiter, I bucked tradition again and went with the Gluten-Free and Vegan Arugula Pesto Pasta, which was a basic brown rice fusilli pasta with local tomato, red onion, spinach and tossed with toasted walnuts. It was as amazing as it looked. Got a Gluten-Free and Vegan Chocolate Mousse with Spiced Berry Compote for dessert, which I split with Cathy. All of us talked for awhile, not much about running but about other stuff, until we were told they needed the table. So, with that, we parted ways. Cathy, Jenn and I walked back to the hotel room. and I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth, put out my race clothes for the morning, plugged in my Garmin to charge, set the two wake-up alarms, and then…went to bed.
My first alarm got me up and I went through my routine before hitting the sack again for another hour. The second alarm rang and I was up and into the bathroom to change into my race gear. I had opted for a tank top, despite the 47 degree weather that morning. I had my homemade arm warmers for the start, figuring I’d shed them sometime in the race. My running skirt, my CEP calf sleeves, my Newton’s. I was ready to run. I put on my sunscreen and got my “epic race hair” done up before stretching. Jenn woke up just before I was to wake up both her and Cathy to get ready…so I just needed to worry about getting Cathy moving. I woke her up and then settled in to eat my cereal (a pre-race tradition for EVERY race). I took my time, relaxed, and occupied my mind with things other than the race. Both Cathy and Jenn grabbed the free granola from the expo and got something in their stomachs and soon, I was grabbing my banana and we were heading down to the lobby and outside to the starting area.
The start area hadn’t been opened to the runners in the full or half marathon yet…so everyone was sort of behind a barrier on the other side of the street. I saw pacers walk by and really wanted to go find my girls, but Cathy was like…”Um…good luck with that!” Which, sort of annoyed me so I was in a huff when the starting area was finally opened. But, she called me back and I settled down. I got hugs and was told to have a good race. Jenn told me that “The Power of Dean [Karnazes] Compelled Me” and not to “pants my poop.” This is tradition. It has to happen. With that, I left them to go find a spot near the start line and I went to hopefully find Janelle (who I hadn’t met yet in person) and Kat.
Kat (green arm warmers), Me, and Janelle (pink shirt) heading out at the start of the Buffalo Marathon – Buffalo, New York (Photo Credit: Jennifer Mariani)
Janelle found me, actually…which was awesome. We were about 15 minutes away from race time. I was so happy to see her. She looked rested and ready to run. Perfect. I asked if she had seen Kat…and she hadn’t. But a few minutes later, miss Bright Green Arm Warmers was at our sides. We attempted to do some stretching in the start area but it was really crowded and moving around was not much of an option. Kat was talking to pretty much everyone…because I really think she knows everyone in Buffalo…and we did our best to keep our legs loose and limber in the chilly morning air. I pointed out that the girl in front of me had her shirt on inside out and we agreed that if it wasn’t three minutes to start time, we might have informed her…but it was too late now. The National Anthem was sung…and we were right in line with the 4-hour pace group. Right where I wanted to start. One moment later…runners were off. And we were making the march toward the start line. Kat doesn’t like to start running until she crosses that mat, so we kept a fast walk until we hit that start gate…and we were off. I spotted Cathy and Jenn immediately, flashed a peace sign…and fell into pace.
Janelle, Me, and Kat love seeing familiar faces around Mile 6.3 in the Buffalo Marathon – Buffalo, New York
We stayed behind the pace group for the first mile, wanting to make sure we didn’t have the “fly and die” technique…wanting to go into this easy and work our way up. Kat and Janelle both liked this plan and that was what we worked at doing. But somewhere before we hit Mile 2, we got ahead of the pace group. I asked my girls how they felt about pace, and both agreed it was good. I told them that whenever they wanted to back off, just to say the word and we would. So, Kat did that every now and again, terrified of going out too fast and wanting to have that 4 hour pace group not too much behind or ahead of us at any time. As both seemed comfortable…we continued on. We hit that 5K mark feeling strong, and I once again checked on the pace. We backed it off a little per Kat’s request and continued on. I ditched my arm warmers somewhere around here as well. HA! Looking at my Garmin…we actually were keeping a very level, even pace for a good stretch of this race. It was awesome. It felt good. We all felt good. Kat gave me a bit of a tour as we were running, as this is where she grew up. I’m a history buff, so I found every bit of this fascinating. And…it made the miles fly by without us really paying attention to them at all. Before we knew it, we were at the 10K mark…feeling good. We rounded a corner, and Kat spotted Adam and went over to see him, but he told her to keep going as she was right on pace. And just a few feet up…was Cathy and Jenn. I spotted the donkey sign! I gave a big wave and a smile. It’s always nice to see familiar faces during a race…and we were only 1/4 of the way done. But…we were feeling amazing. So, on we went.
We kept this great pace (just under sub-9) up through the LaSalle Park area. We hit the waterfront, where the road narrowed quite a bit. The slow-up was welcome though…so we took the break and eased our way through the crowds. The waterfront was gorgeous! Honestly. I loved running this part of the race. Great breeze. Great views. The lake was stunning. We knew as we were going to be leaving the waterfront that photographers were stationed. And we spotted them up ahead. The three of us raised our arms for the shot…and that was when some jackass pushed Kat. Like…literally pushed her. RUDE! So, not sure how that shot is going to turn out. Asshat. We had now hit the 15K mark…and all of us were still feeling good and strong. My girls were rockstars! I asked about pace every now and again, wanting them to feel comfortable with it…and so far, they were.
Janelle, Me, and Kat at the 13.1 mile point of the Buffalo Marathon! Feeling strong. Looking strong!
Kat continued her guided tour as we ran around the Erie Basin Marina and back into town. She was elated when she noticed the course was going to take us past the First Niagara Center, where the Buffalo Sabers play hockey. She has season tickets…so she was glad the new course still ran past there. The sun was up now and there were no clouds in the sky. None. So it was warming up fast. We came through town, loving the shade that the buildings provided, but the heat was there. We hit the halfway point…and were pleasantly surprised to see both Jenn and Cathy standing right at the 13.1 marker to cheer us on. We were powering through that first half, maintaining a relatively even pace…backing off where necessary…and feeling awesome. We were just where we needed to be…right in between the 3:50:00 pacers and the 4-hour pace group. We were right on target.
But as we headed a few miles further in, the heat started to really affect Kat. She came to a walk on a hill around Mile 15, taking out her inhaler. We were ahead of schedule and the walk break was a welcome one on the hill, and once she fueled and took in some liquid, we were back on our way. We knocked out another mile back on our pace, but the 4-hour pace group had caught up to us. We decided to run just behind them for a little while. Good strategy. But as we came into Mile 16, going into 17…Kat slowed again and the pace group moved ahead. She was getting angry and frustrated with herself, but we were still ahead of the pace group so that was of some help to get her focused again. The fuel belt she was wearing wasn’t sitting right on her body, so Janelle asked if she wanted to try holding her bottle with Nuun in it and ditching the belt with her husband at Mile 17. Kat agreed so Janelle ran up ahead to find her husband, dump water out of one of her bottles, and get one ready for Kat. Kat was really struggling here and as we walked a bit through Mile 16.55, with her in tears and angry at having to walk, one of the volunteers checked to make sure she was okay, letting us know where we were in the race and asking if she needed any sort of attention. She waved him off and we both thanked him, and when we hit some road signs, we started to pick up the pace again, maintaining that until we met up with Janelle and her husband near Mile 17. We changed out the fuel pack for the handheld water and we were back on our way.
We were now in Delaware Park, which would last for a mile, where we then would enter back onto the streets and re-enter the park around Mile 20.5. As we were heading up the hill, Kat went to fuel with her Craisins. But they didn’t stay down. The heat was really getting to her…as she hadn’t had warm weather this year to train in. Buffalo was 40 degrees all day on Friday…and Saturday was slightly warmer, but with a cool breeze that made it feel cooler. We had a slight breeze, but the air was hot and the sun was relentless. Kat handed me the handheld bottle and tried to fuel again, this time to keep it down. I gave her one of my bottles on my fuel belt that had water inside. She took it…and this time…it all stayed down. She asked if I was okay holding onto the handheld bottle for her…and I said that was fine. Mind you, I hate running with things in my hands, but this was definitely more important. And…it would help me keep a steadier pace for Kat. But then the 4:10 pace group past and I saw that fight go out of her. She felt defeated, but I did what I could to get her to press on. We could at least try for her next goal of a PR. We came out of the park and it was a run walk method, with Janelle and I just wanting to keep Kat going. Finally, Janelle said she was starting to hurt, so she was going to put on her headphones and head for the finish line. We had tried to get her to do that earlier…but she stuck it out with us for some of it, even giving up her sub-4 finish to make sure Kat was okay. But we wished her luck and sent her on, telling her to let Cathy and Jenn know that we would be behind her.
I did my best to keep Kat going. The heat was really doing a number on her. She was getting dizzy and suffering from a headache. In addition, she said at some points she felt like she was going to pass out. I didn’t want that to happen, so I told her to walk when she needed. We were coming up around Mile 20 when one lone woman was standing on the road, shouting support to everyone. She saw Kat, who was crying, and honed in on her. It made me smile when I heard her say to Kat…”I see you, 890! You look so strong. Come on 890…you can do this. Push through, 890! I know you can do this. I know you want to run.” Kat started crying more, but this time tears of happiness, and her pace…picked up. It was the push she needed…from a random stranger. And as she ran up the hill…the woman said, “That’s it 890! Keep going!!” and other inspiring and motivating words. She was a rockstar. And, honestly, was able to do what I couldn’t. As we came back into Delaware Park, Kat said she had to use the bathroom and maybe that would help. The problem was…there were no port-a-potties on the course winding through the park. So, it was run, walk, run…until we were heading out of the park where there were some port-a-potties. Luckily one was not in use. I waited on the corner while she ducked into one. A minute later, we were back on the road and back to running. She felt better. And we now had just over 4 more miles to go. We were getting there. When the 4:20 pace group passed, she started crying again. And…she handed over her Garmin, saying she didn’t want it on anymore. Is trapped it onto my wrist and we moved on. It was better this way. She had been so focused on that pace and now…her disappointment was setting in. I kept assuring her that her primary goal was to finish…and I was going to get her to that line.
With only a few miles left, we were determined to go without stopping. Kat was determined now, despite the heat. She was sweating out salt, so I was trying to get her to take in as much water and electrolytes as possible. Her compression socks were starting to bother her, so she stopped to roll them down. Only, that felt worse as we started up again, so she pulled them back up. We ran and walked for the next few miles, doing what she needed. I pushed her here and there, telling her what landmarks we would hit and start jogging and picking up the pace…easing back into it. She listened to me…and did as I said…and she’d slow and walk when she needed to. Around Mile 24, she was done with the compression socks. So she pulled over to the side of the road and sat down, taking off her shoes and removing the socks. I ended up tying them to my fuel belt and she put her shoes back on and decided to finish the race without socks on. I told her she’d blister…and she said blisters already happened. Might as well be comfortable. A woman who was cheering on runners across the street asked if she was okay…and we said she was…and within moments, she was back on her feet and we were heading down into the next mile…slapping hands with college boys at the water stop. We walked a bit coming into Mile 25 and I could hear that crowd ahead. The finish line was getting closer. We picked it up…we backed it off…we walked when she needed it. She finished off her Nuun…she took in one last water stop…and we pressed on…walking to the edge of a building I pointed out…and then picking up that pace. We were in the home stretch and she was going to run it in.
We had made a deal to cross that finish line together. I was wrapped up in the excitement and my finisher’s kick was already there. She called me back, saying she wasn’t ready yet. She wanted to see that finish line. So…I fell back and we rounded through Niagara Square. And then…there it was…the finisher’s chute! We picked up our pace and sprinted…as fast as our legs could go. As we neared that finish line, we took each other’s hands…and crossed together. It was…by far…one of the most rewarding and memorable finishes I have had in my life. We hugged tightly and I told her how proud I was of her. And we moved out of the way so that she could try to catch her breath, regain her strength…get her medal…and get some ice from the medical tent.
Kat, Me, and Janelle proudly displaying our finisher’s medals at the finish of the Buffalo Marathon – Buffalo, New York. So proud of these ladies!
After snagging an ice pack to put on the back of her neck, we headed back out, retrieving Mylar blankets and started down the chute. She spotted Adam and her mom and went to talk to them for a moment. And then…we went to get our picture taken for finishing. We moved further down the chute, retrieving water bottles and any snacks needed. She snagged an orange…good choice. And then we met up with Janelle, Cathy, Jenn, Janelle’s husband, Janelle’s dog (Domino), and Adam and Kat’s mom at the very end. We stood around talking for a little while and snapped a picture of the three of us with our medals. But then I needed to get up to the hotel room to shower off and change (as they were not allowing any late check-outs. Nope. Not at the host hotel!). Kat came with us because I forgot to give her the pizza the night before…and she changed while I went to shower. Cathy and Jenn packed everything up and when I stepped out of the shower…we were ready to head out.
Hugs all around and we were off.
So…my official results for the Buffalo Marathon are that I finished in a time of 4:32:44 (gun time) and 4:31: 36 (chip time) (for 26.49 miles). I was 832/1287 finishers overall. I was the 311/548 women to cross the finish line. And I was 64/108 in my age division. I can honestly say that this was the first time I ever crossed the finish line carrying more gear than I left with. HA! First time for everything!
Yes…there was a twinge of disappointment that came with this finish. But it wasn’t with the finishing time. It was watching a goal slip away from a good friend of mine, who worked her ass off to achieve it. Her body wasn’t ready for the heat, as she hadn’t trained in it yet. There were a few other factors as well. And the relentless sun did her in that day. But…she was not defeated. No matter how she felt, no matter how much she wanted to collapse and give up…she didn’t. Kat is a fighter. She’s strong and determined and stubborn as hell. And every time she fell back…I saw that flame in her eyes spark up…and she’d start to move again. There were plenty of tears shed at goals that weren’t reached, but ultimately, she proved not only her strength and her determination, but her worth out there on that course. I was so proud of her at that finish line. There was nowhere else I wanted to be than at her side that entire race, seeing her push through her own doubts. She is a fighter and she fought for this finish. She gave everything she had to reach that finish line. She finished strong. And every ounce of me has been inspired by her sheer determination and will to push through and see herself to that finish line. Her original goals fell to the wayside…but she finished. And ultimately...it’s not about finish times…it’s about finish lines. So often, as runners, we put so much emphasis on a new PR, a better time, faster, better, perfection. Those are all nice to accomplish and to have as goals, but we get so focused on that and sometimes we lose the actual joy of the run. We forget to have some fun. To enjoy it. To just take it in. When Kat crossed her finish line that morning…and when I gave her a tight hug, I told her just how proud I was of her. I still am. Best finish for me…ever.
Thank you, Kat…for inspiring me to push on when my self-doubts want me to stop. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for. This is one race I will always point to and say…”She wanted to give up…but she never did.” For that…you are more than an inspiration. You’re my hero!
When you can’t walk, you crawl. When you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you. – Firefly