Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Milwaukee's Lakefront Marathon: How I Became An Official Badass

I would just like to start off by saying that I am not declaring myself to be an official badass.  That would be presumptuous.   No, that declaration was made by my own Coach Brad, who is an expert in the field of badassology (true story).  So if Coach Brad calls someone a badass, you don't argue with him.

Now, allow me to explain how I became an official badass.  It wasn't easy.  Earning such a prestigious title never is.  But it was absolutely worth the effort.

It actually started months ago, before I even began training for the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon.  A seed was planted in my mind, after I ran my first sub-2:00 half-marathon. A good friend and fellow marathoner (who runs really really fast) said to me, "I think you should shoot for sub-4:00 in the marathon."  At first, I laughed him off.  Ridiculous!  I just barely broke 5 hours in the marathon in January.  No way was I ready to conquer sub-4:00 in the same year!

But as much as I tried to ignore it, the seed had been planted and was starting to take root in my somewhat-competitive brain.  Maybe it wasn't that far-fetched after all.  Maybe if I trained really hard over the summer, it could be done.  Maybe if the weather on race day was just right, I would stand a chance.  So before I knew it, The Sub-4:00 Marathon had become my ultimate goal.

It's worth noting that the pace required to finish a marathon just under 4 hours is 9:09 min/mile.  Two years ago, I could barely run a 5k at this pace.  The thought of trying to cover 26 miles at this pace was positively terrifying.  I believe I had several panic attacks about it during the course of marathon training.

Fortunately, the panicking led to working hard.  I trained harder for this marathon than for any of my other previous four marathons.  When I say "harder", I don't mean I ran at a higher intensity. If anything, the vast majority of my mileage was easy to moderate in intensity.  But I ran a lot more miles than before.  Instead of peaking at 40 miles per week during training, I peaked at 56 miles.  And I averaged 45 miles per week during my training season.  It's simple: the more you run, the easier it gets.  The trick is running more without getting injured, and that's why the bulk of my mileage tended toward the easy side.  A funny thing happened, though: the more miles I ran, the faster my easy pace became. So when taper time rolled around, I was actually feeling pretty good about my ability to at least knock out a 4:15 marathon on race day.  That would still be a very substantial PR.

Fast-forward to race weekend...

The weather forecasts for race day had me a bit worried, because even though the temperature looked great (low 40's for race start, low 60's by the finish), the predicted 25 mph headwind did NOT.  Lakefront Marathon is a north-to-south point-to-point course, so the worst possible wind scenario is a strong wind out of the south.  Unfortunately, that was what they were predicting.  I remained optimistic despite this and reminded myself that weather forecasts are often a load of made-up crap.

I arrived in beautiful Milwaukee on Friday evening, where I headed immediately to the small race expo (pretty much what you'd expect from an event this size) and picked up my race packet.  Packet pick-up was well-organized, and I was in and out in a matter of minutes.  The swag was pretty decent.  I really like the race shirt, which is a gender-specific tech shirt that looks red in this picture, but is really more of an orangey-salmon color in person.  Very unique.  I also loved the custom-printed personalized race bibs.  The names were highly visible, which ended up being a very good thing for me on race day, as you will soon see.

The swag: a  tech shirt, a custom race bib, and some other random crap that I'll probably throw away.

On Saturday before the race, I had a lot of time to kill, but I couldn't very well go around sightseeing.  I needed to rest my legs and feet as much as possible.  So I walked a couple blocks to Starbucks, and a few blocks to a pizza place for lunch - just enough to keep the legs loose.  And then I decided to be a little adventurous and go on a tour of one of Milwaukee's many breweries.  I chose Lakefront Brewery after I saw that it was rated #4 on the list of Top 10 Brewery Tours in the US.  I was not disappointed.  Without going into a ton of detail, I learned a lot about beer, I got to sample some very tasty beers, and I was crowned the Bung Queen by the tour guide.

Okay, I know what you're wondering:  What did you learn about beer and what kind of beers did you sample?

Oh, and you might also be wondering what the heck a Bung Queen is.  It's not as weird as it sounds, I swear.

Okay, it's exactly as weird as it sounds.  But not in the way you think.  You see, a bung is a round wooden stopper used to plug up beer kegs after they're filled.  The hole in the barrel is known as the bung hole.  In order to insert the bung into the bung hole, in the old days, they would use a large wooden mallet known as a bung-whacker.  I swear on Prefontaine's grave, I am not making this up.  Anyway, the tour guide was so impressed with my enthusiasm on the tour, and the fact that I took approximately 3,679 pictures during the 45 minute tour, that he crowned me the Bung Queen and bestowed upon me my very own bung.  All the other people on the tour were green with envy.

Tour guide Sir Willow shows us his bung hole. The one in the keg, I mean.

After being crowned the Bung Queen, I didn't see how my weekend could possibly get any better!  But just you wait, boys and girls...

My tour was early in the afternoon on Saturday, allowing me the rest of the day to relax at the hotel and stay off my feet.  I decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant, since they had a pasta special and it wouldn't involve walking anywhere.  At first, dinner was pretty uneventful and I just sitting there by myself worrying about the impending race...  until two women were seated at the table next to me who had Lakefront Marathon gear check bags.  Ah ha!  Fellow marathoners!  People who could possibly commiserate with me in my state of pre-marathon madness!

I sneakily inserted myself into their marathon conversation, and the three of us spent the rest of our dinner enjoying lively and relaxed conversation about running and races we've enjoyed.  Now, I don't normally weasel my way into other people's conversations but there's a special camaraderie among runners, and especially among marathoners, that allows us to be instant friends without even knowing each other's names.  And sadly, I never did catch the names of these two ladies, but I want to thank them for making my carb-loading feast much more enjoyable and taking my mind off my marathon worries.  I hope they both achieved their marathon day goals.

Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I had a couple moments of "OMG, I'm running a marathon tomorrow!"  but for the most part, I felt surprisingly calm.  I set three alarms, and went to bed early.  I slept unusually well.  The first of my three alarms to go off in the morning was the clock radio, which was playing "Moves Like Jagger".  I remembered this song motivating fellow FASTie Cathy in her recent marathon PR at Fox Valley.  It had to be a good sign!  I hopped right out of bed and did a little dance as I went through my pre-race routine.  I didn't feel nervous at all.  I was cool as a cucumber.

There was shuttle bus service right from my hotel to the race start in Grafton.  I hopped on the bus at 6am and rode for what seemed like an eternity.  The man sitting next to me on the bus said "Wow, this is a really long ride.  And we have to run all the way back!"  I glared at him.  When we finally arrived at Grafton High School (which really did feel like a million miles away from downtown Milwaukee), I stepped off the bus into chilly morning air.  I could see my own breath as I made my way into the school to stay warm.

This race is fairly small, as marathons go, with only 3,000 participants (in contrast to the Chicago Marathon's 40,000 runners).  So there's no need to line up a the start an hour early.  With 15 minutes to go, I moseyed outside, and I quickly found the 4:00 pace group. I wasn't planning to run with them, but I wanted to keep them in my sights as a sort of gauge, so I settled into the crowd behind them.

There was no question about it.  It was cold.  I was used to running in 85°+ temps all summer and now it was 39°.  I had on long sleeves, mittens and a hat and I was still cold.

Brrrrr!  At the starting line, ready to go!

Before I knew it, we were off.  I wouldn't be cold for very long.  The 4:00 pace group was about 20 or 30 feet ahead of me and I felt like they had started off a little fast, so I didn't try to catch up.  I had plenty of time to catch them.  The first two miles were largely downhill, so I was able to get up to speed pretty quickly.  The first water station was less than two miles into the race, and I had already planned on skipping this water station. The 4:00 pace group, however, stopped at this water station (I assume the pace leaders are instructed to stop briefly at every water station) and I whizzed past them.

I never saw them again.

I would love to give you a mile-by-mile rundown of my marathon experience, but I actually remember very little about the later miles of the race due to the fact that it was all I could do to just keep moving forward.  So I will break the race up into four unequal segments.

The First Half:  For the most part, I felt great.  I fueled according to my plan.  I high-fived spectators, chatted with other runners, listened to the conversations going on around me, enjoyed the scenery and soaked up the sunshine.  Somewhere around Mile 6 or 7, I ditched my gloves and hat and pushed up my sleeves.  The terrain was gently rolling, mostly rural roads lined by shady trees.  I crossed the halfway point in 1:58:47, a pace of 9:03.65.

Thumbs up was my theme for the first half.

The Second Half:  After the halfway point, things started to get intense.  My breathing wasn't labored, but my legs were feeling heavy.  I was on track for sub-4:00 though, as long as I didn't slow down much, so I remained optimistic.  I started to focus less on my surroundings and more on my body and keeping it moving forward.  I was vaguely aware that the scenery was becoming less rural and more suburban.  There were large beautiful homes on tree-lined residential streets.  More spectators were out in these miles.  I got a lot of "Great job, Emily!" and "You look strong, Emily!" and "Cute skirt, Emily!" which really helped snap me out of my internally-focused state.  One foot in front of the other.  Keep moving forward.

The Last Two Miles:  In the 24th mile, the course takes a nosedive down a huge hill and onto the lakefront path.  The downhill was wonderful.  The lakefront path was not.  Oh, it was scenic and beautiful whatnot, but all the shady trees were gone and the sun was now beating down on me.  Not only that, but it had suddenly gotten windy and I was running against the wind. I could hear Coach Brad in my mind, yelling at me "Dig deep!".  The last two miles, I had to dig very deep.  They were the hardest two miles I have ever run.  I could feel my calves starting to cramp up.  I prayed they would hold out for just a few more minutes.  Just get me to the finish line, I begged of my calves.  One foot in front of the other.  Left, right, left, right, left, right.

The Last 0.2 Miles:  Finally, I could make out the finish line ahead in the distance.  It seemed so far away.  Spectators were lined up along both sides of the path, cheering loudly.  "Just 600 feet to go!" I heard one of them say.  I have never calculated run distance in feet before, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out what that was in meters.  My ability to do math was completely gone.  All I knew was that 600 feet really wasn't very far.  Not compared to the 26 miles I had already run.  Then, I saw a bright spot in the line of spectators: my good friend and fellow FASTie, Becky, who had driven up to Milwaukee that morning for the sole purpose of cheering me on at the finish line.  I mustered a smile, not because I was happy, but because she had a camera, and smiling for a camera is an uncontrollable reflex.  Then, with less than 100 feet to the finish line, I saw another bright spot in the line of spectators.  My dad reached out of the crowd and high-fived me while cheering at the top of his lungs.  After seeing two people who were so dear to me, I grew wings.  And then I flew across the finish line.

That's a look of victory and pain on my face.  It's not too far off from the Mark Remy "race face".

I was now a sub-4-hour marathoner.  I was in shock; I just couldn't believe I had really done it.

I hobbled slowly through the finish chute, and a nice man came over to me, introduced himself as "Kevin from Medical" and asked if he could walk with me for a bit.  He asked me some questions about how I felt, to which I responded "Well, I'm really tired and sore, but I'm pretty happy.  Oh, and I feel a little nauseous."  He chuckled, and I guess he decided I wasn't delirious or knocking on death's door, so he let me go collect my medal and post-race refreshments.

My legs were toast.  It took every ounce of strength I had, and then some, to hobble over to Becky, and then hobble slowly to the beer tent and then the results tent.  The beer was wonderful.  The official results printout was even more wonderful.

3:57:49.  Sweet.

Then we found my dad, who I think was pretty darn proud of me.  Indeed, he spent the rest of the afternoon telling anyone who would listen, and several people who wouldn't, that his daughter had just run a sub-4-hour marathon, and asking people if there was any sort of special "marathon discount".  The waitress at the restaurant where we later had lunch apologetically replied that there was no "marathon discount", but then she brought me out a piece of chocolate cake with a candle in it.  So, thanks to my dad, I got free cake.  You can't beat that!

Father, daughter and beer...  a trifecta of awesomeness.

I should take a moment to mention that the Lakefront Marathon was a top-notch event: well-organized, with enthusiastic volunteers, great course support and lots of great perks (free locally-brewed beer at the finish - awesome).  The course, or at least what I remember of it, was beautiful.  It's not a big-city marathon, and the streets aren't lined with spectators 5-deep the entire 26 miles, but the spectators who are out there are encouraging and energetic.  There aren't dozens of rock bands playing at every mile, but there was a really awesome old guy singing and playing an accordion in front of his house at one point.  For anyone looking for 26 miles of entertainment, this is probably not the marathon for you.  But for anyone looking for a well-organized event that caters to runners who just love to run, look no further.

I also want to take some time to mention the people who helped me achieve my goals, because I could not have done it alone.  Thanks, Chris, for planting the sub-4:00 seed in my brain so many months ago.  And thanks to all my fellow FASTies and Stashies for your encouragement and enthusiasm as I set goals over the summer and achieved them.  A special thanks to fellow FASTie Kristi for enduring so many long long runs with me, and also enduring a lot of post-run refueling at One World Cafe.  It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it, right?  And thank you to all my friends and family who cheered for me from afar and tracked my progress in the marathon on race day.  Knowing that people were tracking me was extremely motivating, and helped keep me moving forward when my legs wanted so badly to stop.  And huge thanks to Becky and my dad for being at the finish line for me and being the best cheerleaders ever.  Or is it athletic supporters?  No.  Cheerleaders.  Definitely cheerleaders.  Thanks, guys.  You all rock.

And of course, thanks to my coaches who didn't laugh at me when I told them I wanted to run a sub-4:00 marathon.  Upon learning of my 3:57 marathon, Coach Brad posted on my Facebook wall "You are an official badass in my book."  At least I think it was because of my 3:57 marathon.  He didn't really say.  Maybe it was actually because I had been crowned the Bung Queen.  Because, that's pretty badass too.

Peace. Love. Train.


  1. I have been waiting for this entry and you did not disappoint. The one thing I have truly missed from my FB detox was my running community and the support and encouragement it provides. I haven't been posting on your FB page but I have been thinking of you so much this month. You are just amazing, plain and simple. Way to dig deep girl. You have worked so unbelievably hard this training season and I hope you wear that medal with pride. Badass indeed.


  2. Awesome job, Emily. You really are one badass running babe.

  3. Very well done Emily, and by that I mean your blog post. And the marathon! I am very happy for you and was glad to have played a part in your special weekend.


  4. you're awesome Emily!!!! i love reading your blog :)