The author shortly after running the 2019 Richmond Marathon.
The author shortly after running the 2019 Richmond Marathon. Credit: Alex Booth

I decided to give up any hope of reaching my goal after the 16th mile of the Richmond Marathon. 

Running into 15 mph headwinds crossing the mile-long bridge above the Belle Isle left me deflated, and my legs grew heavier with each step. I had trouble keeping down the gels and water I consumed. My average mile pace had slowed by more than 30 seconds. 

At the next water stop, I began to walk.

When I started long-distance running in 2013, I set what I thought was a tough but reachable goal—run 26.2 miles in under four hours. Each year I joined a training group with Montgomery County Road Runners Club around late spring or early summer with that goal in mind. Weekend mornings were reserved for long runs, and I went from resenting the sport to running up to 40 miles a week.

But no matter how many 20-mile runs or track workouts I completed over the course of more than six months, an injury close to race time would derail my plans. In 2015, I wrote for the Washington Post about how a left calf cramp sent me flying face first into the pavement at the Marine Corps Marathon in D.C. I finished that race in 4:06:20.

In the subsequent years, I ran a pair of marathons within two minutes of my goal where a late-race calf cramp struck again, forcing me to walk. I started to lose confidence. At training runs over 16 miles, I would mentally prepare for the inevitable pain to seize up my legs.

Heading into the Richmond Marathon this past weekend, I had the most inconsistent training I’ve had before a marathon. I badly sprained my ankle in May, and I went weeks without running. During the championship runs of the Mystics and Nationals, I stopped prioritizing running.

Whenever someone would ask me about my race goals, I gave non-committal answers.

Secretly, I did not expect to run a sub-four marathon. My goal was to maintain a nine-minute-mile pace as long as I could until the wheels inevitably fell off. 

On race day, there were high winds and the temperature hovered in the low 30s. I jumped into the second corral between the 3:50 and 4:00 marathon pacers. With the breeze at my back, the first few miles through the streets of Richmond felt manageable.

At first, I didn’t put any pressure on myself and tried to treat the race as just a long run. But I then thought about how the WNBA champion Mystics, who had been the favorite to win the WNBA title during the playoffs, had embraced their role as the favorite. They adopted a Billie Jean King quote that “pressure is privilege.”

I repeated that mantra a few times to myself.

When I saw my friends cheering on the bridge before mile 16, I was on pace to run a few minutes under four hours. Then I hit the marathon “wall.” Doubts crept into my mind. 

Between miles 16 and 20, I stopped and walked at every water stop. My goal shifted to finishing under 4:05, then 4:10. 

It wasn’t until the 4:00 pacers passed me shortly after the 20th mile that I started to pick up the pace. My legs felt lighter, and my calves were cramp free. I knew I would be disappointed if I didn’t give one last attempt at a sub-four finish.

I thought about my first marathon coach and friend, Conroy Zien, who ran dozens of marathons over the course of many years to try and qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon before doing so this past September. I thought about my training partners, and how each of us has a different reason for running. 

That to me is the beauty of the sport. It allows you to be competitive with yourself. You set your own goals. You decide how to challenge yourself. You don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.

I knew if reached mile 23 without cramping that I would have a chance. The pacers lurked just meters behind, and I kept my distance in case it came down to a final sprint. With three-quarters of a mile to go, my right calf started to twitch. Another mile and it would’ve been immobilized with cramps. 

When I saw the finish line past the 100-foot drop in elevation leading into downtown Richmond, I had about a minute to spare. I tried to pick up my pace, but couldn’t, and let the downward momentum carry me past the crowd of roaring spectators.

I pounded my chest and let out a scream as I crossed the mat. I checked my watch: 3:58:30.

While waiting in line to collect my bags, I allowed myself a few seconds to soak it in. I cried. Or at least I think I did.

Later that day at dinner, a fellow run club member asked me what I felt I had done differently this time. By most measures, this shouldn’t have been the race where I accomplished my goal. I didn’t—and still don’t—have an answer. I’m just glad I did the one thing I said I would do when I ran my first marathon years ago.

I kept running.