On Saturday, February 28, 2015, I joined the 1,881 men and women who conquered the Phoenix Marathon in beautiful Mesa, Arizona. I had trained for five and a half months for this race. I felt ready physically, and yet as I took the 30-minute bus ride from Mesa Riverwalk up to the full marathon starting line, I felt like I had my feet and hands braced against the open door of an airplane as a skydiving instructor tried to shove me out the door against my will. The thought of taking on my fifth full marathon intimidated me to the point that my teeth chattered with nerves and not just the cold.
After a 3:15 a.m. wake-up call (that’s 2:15 a.m. for this California girl), I’d hopped a bus at 4:45 and arrived at the staging area by 5:15. Conditions at the starting line turned out to be perfect in spite of the prior threat of rain. The temperature was in the 50s and the pre-dawn sky was overcast. The staging area boasted firepits and propane heaters to keep the runners warm, but I opted to find a place to sit and rest my legs after my first trip through the porta-potty lines. I hopped back in the burgeoning lines at 5:45 and tried in vain to will the lines to move faster. Only when the first set of fireworks went off did the line get moving, much to my relief. By 6:10 I was back out and changing out of my sweats, then slathering on sunscreen. I dropped my gear bag at the truck and walked to the starting line by 6:20. There were no corrals and I placed myself behind the 3:30 pacer but in front of the 3:35 pacer. The race started on time and we were off in the dark just as the sky started to lighten.
Miles 1 through 4 (Pace in minutes per mile: 8:01, 7:49, 8:07, 7:57)
The runners started out more slowly than I would have liked but that probably was a good thing, reining in my enthusiasm and adrenaline-fueled nerves. The course starts on a downhill grade but nothing that tempted my legs to really fly (it’s much less steep than the Revel Canyon City Half Marathon, which I loved). The pack of runners thinned after mile 2 or so and everyone settled into their own race.
Miles 5 through 8 (8:26, 8:33, 7:37, 7:55)
Miles 5 and 6 are uphill. I had done at least one hill workout per week in training so I was prepared for the hills and I tried to keep a steady effort and not stress when my pace slowed a bit. Mile 7 was the downhill reward for all that uphill. By then it was fully light outside and I enjoyed taking in some of the scenic desert landscape.
Miles 9 through 12 (7:56, 8:01, 8:03, 8:07)
The slight downhill grade continued through mile 12, and while the course declines in elevation after that I did not notice it. The course felt flat from there on out and unfortunately, we faced some wind on several of the miles in the second half of the race.
Miles 13 through 16 (8:10, 8:06, 8:17, 8:14)
I hit the half marathon mark at 1:45:39, right on pace for a 3:34 finish as hoped. However, at mile 15 I really felt the wind fighting me and I struggled to maintain my target pace of 8:07. This part of the course runs through more residential and industrial areas (meaning that the half marathon race course is not quite as pretty as the full course), but I remember passing many orange trees in bloom and the course smelled heavenly!
Miles 17 through 20 (8:03, 8:12, 8:10, 8:43)
Somewhere during mile 16 I distinctly remember thinking, “Okay, this isn’t fun anymore.” That’s not the kind of attitude that’s going to get you through 10 more miles of running, so I started working on my mental game. I remembered what my sleepy six-year-old had said to me as she asked for water at 3:30 a.m.: “Good luck Mama. You’ll do great because you’re a speedy mom.” I just started repeating “speedy mom, speedy mom, speedy mom” to myself, willing my legs to prove I was indeed a speedy mom. Unfortunately, in mile 20 I developed an odd, pulling sort of pain in my left buttock that made me have trouble convincing my leg to lift up and forward. I managed to work through it, thank goodness, but my pace never quite recovered. I didn’t hit the wall like I did at Mountains2Beach, but it was taking all of my mental and physical energy to keep racing. At some point my brain and my body had a conversation that went like this:
Body: “I would like to walk now.”
Brain: “I know, me too, but we can’t. Don’t give up now. Keep going! You’ve come this far.”
Body, “No really, I want to walk.”
Brain: “Sorry. Just run to the next aid station.”
And that became my mantra. “Run to 21. Run to 21.” When I reached the aid station at mile 21, it became “Run to 23. Run to 23.” Somehow the thought of running two miles until I could walk through the aid station was a lot less intimidating than running the whole remaining 10K. At every aid station (miles 3, 5, 7, 9 etc. until 23 when they were every mile), I took in two cups of Gatorade Endurance, lemon-lime flavor (my favorite!) The aid stations were well-stocked with Gatorade and water, and several stations had Clif Shots and/or oranges although I never took any of those.
Miles 21 through 24 (8:42, 8:45, 8:30, 8:51)
Spectators scattered themselves along the course in small packs. My favorite race sign of the day: “Don’t be the Seahawks. Run it in!” Around mile 21, one of my fellow Boston 2016 Facebook group members recognized me and encouraged me by name. I needed that boost then — there’s just something about someone saying your name that gives you that extra surge of energy and I appreciated that so much! I also loved all the kids on the sidelines who offered high fives, and the guy who had the “touch this spot for power” sign (you better believe I touched it)! He popped up on the course several times and I felt like I had my own personal cheering squad in addition to my husband and three girls waiting for me at the finish line.
During mile 23, the 3:35 pacer passed me. I felt both disappointed and inspired at the same time. I managed to pick up the pace to 8:30 as I chased him, but I soon lost sight of him. As my Garmin clocked mile 24 at an 8:51 pace, I decided to check my overall time: 3:20 and change. I realized that if I could just keep my pace under 10 minutes per mile for the remaining 2.2 miles, I could still break 3:40! My PR from Santa Rosa was 3:44:26 and I felt confident I could beat that.
Miles 24 through 26.27 (9:08, 8:29, .27 at 7:57 pace)
The thought of breaking 3:40 really lit a fire under me (not that you would know it from that 9:08 pace). It was clear that I hadn’t hit the wall and I still had some gas left in the tank if I could just convince my legs to go go go! I always joke that I can pick up the pace in the last mile when I realize that I’m not going to collapse on the course. Sure enough, I brought mile 25 in at 8:29. As I approached the final turn on the course, I came up on a girl who was pacing her friend to a Boston Qualifying time. She cheered her friend on as she called to the spectators, “This girl is going to qualify for Boston! Boston Qualifier, right here!” I smiled at her exuberance for her friend, and my cheeks flushed with pleasure as I knew at that point that she could be talking about me, too. As I picked up the pace in the final straightaway, I heard the announcer call my name and say that it looked like I was going to qualify for Boston, “Yes, yes indeed, we have another Boston Qualifier, Angela White!” I threw my hands up in the air with joy and relief!
I had done it! I had hung on to break my personal best time by 7 minutes 28 seconds and qualify for Boston with 8 minutes 2 seconds to spare, coming in at 3:36:58 (which, let’s be honest, is SO much more satisfying than 3:37)!
My husband and girls had positioned themselves right after the finish line. I got kisses from all of them and they handed me the chocolate milk I’d begged them to bring to the finish (and thank goodness for that, because I got my medal, water, and a hand towel right away, but I didn’t see any food or other drinks right at the finish. I know there were tents with food elsewhere in the finisher’s area, but all I could think about was making my way to my family). We checked my time at the timing tent. I’m always so impressed when a race provides a printout right at the finish line. I learned that I came in 16th in my 40-44 age group out of 150 women. Dang those ladies are speedy! A full 29 women in that group qualified for Boston! That’s a tremendous percentage, and it either means that the course is “fast” and favorable, or lots of runners gunning for Boston targeted this race, or both. Either way, I recommend the Phoenix Marathon. I had a great experience before, during and after the race. Phoenix is beautiful in the winter and my family enjoyed making it a race vacation. And you know what my 10-year-old said when I crossed the finish line? “We’re going to Boston!”