by Nicole Tilzer
While most people towed the line on Sunday, November 5th, 2017, with the goal of a big PR, a comeback from injury, or just a dream of completing their first marathon, I stood there feeling sort of happy, sort of scared, sort of empty, and sort of ready for it all to be over. Thankfully, 3 hours, 54 minutes, and 17 seconds later, it was – and I couldn’t have been happier!
My running journey began in 2008, while I was pursuing my MBA. Some friends wanted to run the Soldier Field 10 Miler (in Chicago) and asked me to join. My response: No thanks, I’ll prep your pasta dinner the night before and come cheer. I was not a runner, not an athlete, and not someone that ever expected to be associated with those words. Jump ahead to 2010 and I’m completing my first half marathon. 2011 saw me complete my first marathon. Despite the fact that this year’s NYC Marathon would mark marathon #17, I still often struggle to call myself an athlete and that struggle has worked its way into many of my recent start lines.
Strangely enough, I never doubt that I’ll finish. If I start something, I’m going to finish it. So starting to race marathons wasn’t as hard as you might expect. I said I would do one and I did. I thought I could do it better, so I tried again. And again. And again. Then, I finally broke 4 hours and I felt like this was it; this was the momentum I needed to kickstart true gains.
But since then, I’ve been struggling with mid-race stomach issues that have essentially ruined almost every marathon I’ve participated in. In Chicago, things started going downhill at mile 11. For LA, it was mile 6. That’s 20 more miles of running while stopping every 2 miles.
So all summer last year, while training for NYC with the Dashing Whippets, I worked on my physical preparedness and my mental strength. I learned to relax, enjoy the run, and trust myself. I learned to appreciate and love the distance (but not the heat). Since no nutritionist I’d worked with had been able to figure out the problem, my coach at the time recommended I try working with a sports psychologist. And while that scared the crap out of me, I decided to give it a go. Living, or running for that matter, in the moment had not been my strong suit. I’d worry about mile 22 when I was at the start line. I definitely didn’t ‘run the mile I was in’ as we’ve all been taught to do. And I spent so much time worrying about what everyone else thought of me as they tracked me on various apps and social media. So together she and I worked on figuring out why that was, and how to help me focus on what I was doing now and not what was coming up. We also focused on trying to get me to own that I was, in fact, an athlete, but that the marathon shouldn’t define my self-worth. I allowed myself to learn from my teammates and steal some of their joy and mental approaches. Then on race day last year, everything clicked. It was as close to the best race I’d ever run and I got the PR I was looking for. I felt invincible and believed I’d finally broken through the mental disaster I had become.
This year, winter/spring training carried that momentum through. There was great training, cool weather, and strong runs with amazing training partners. Together, with a group of fellow Whippets, I travelled to race the Sugarloaf Marathon in Maine and felt amazing – that is, until the race started. I was on pace for a pretty strong PR when stomach disaster struck again. This was too much to handle. Instead of having learned to trust myself, I kept relying on what worked for other people. What did they eat? How much did they run? What did they like to do in the days before a big race? You would think that after 16 marathons I’d know what worked for my body and how to work WITH myself instead of against myself, but unfortunately, I hadn’t.
Instead of throwing in the towel or taking a rest, I quickly dove into training for NYC this year, but I never felt fully present. I wasn’t looking forward to any of my runs – easy or hard. I couldn’t stand the thought of going back out into the muggy NYC summer to slog through another 18-mile run, barely able to breath and miserable the whole time. I’d done this too many times before, all for nothing.
In the last 6 weeks leading up to the race, I’d decided that this was it — after NY this year, I was either quitting or taking a year off, which, strangely enough, relieved a lot of pressure. I went out, hit my long run goals, enjoyed running with my teammates again, and just simply, ran. Most importantly, I didn’t pay attention to or care what anyone else was doing. I stopped reading magazines and articles telling me what to eat before and on race day. I stopped listening to the training plans of others. Not because I didn’t care, but because they aren’t me. Their bodies are not my body, and mine isn’t theirs. Sounds silly right? But, for so many of us who don’t know how to trust ourselves and don’t identify with this ‘athlete’ we might actually be now, it makes sense to listen to experts and coaches and friends, and ignore what our own bodies are telling us.
That was my biggest lesson/win of the TCS NYC Marathon 2017. I did not carbo load in the days before the race (trust me, it doesn’t work for me). I did not eat a big breakfast and reach for GU and Gatorade on the course. I did not go to the opening ceremonies parade and the 5K the day before. I treated this race like any other long run. I also finally learned how to separate fear from reality during the race. I’m always afraid of how much it will hurt once we hit the Bronx and once that stupid 5th Avenue hill kicks in. This time, I said, so what?! I have run these last 10 miles countless times. It will hurt, yes. It will suck, yes. So what? Keep running! Keep putting one foot in front of the other and don’t stress about it. And, for once, I didn’t stress about it.
While a 5-second PR in the marathon might not stop the presses, when I started that race, I wasn’t sure I would be strong enough to ever want to do it again. I didn’t know if I’d start getting sick again or if my crappy training cycle would hobble me. But, I knew that I was going to give it my best shot and RELAX. I knew that I’d see my family out there. I knew that Eileen had a bullhorn just waiting for me to run by! And I knew how much this race meant to the 50,000 people running it and the millions lining the streets to cheer.
It was about trusting that, yes, I know how to do this. Yes, I am a runner. Yes, I guess, I am an athlete. Yes, I am a Whippet! That’s what this finish line smile is telling you. I still have big time goals in mind and I no longer want to quit, but defeating that girl who was too scared to give it a shot or who refused to admit she was capable and worthy of success, that’s what you see in this picture, that was my personal victory.