Tuesday, November 24, 2020

My First Sub-3 Hour Marathon

When preparation meets opportunity
Tidewater Striders Marathon (3rd Woman)

My one and only athletic goal for 2020 was to earn my pro card in triathlon. Never in my wildest dreams did I think EVERY Half Ironman I registered for would be cancelled/rescheduled to next year. But when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! 

I knew in order to stay fit and have a chance of qualifying for my pro card in 2021 I was going to need to set new goals to stay motivated. I went back and forth with Coach Jonny and settled on three: race an ultramarathon (50K), break 18 minutes in the 5K, and break 3 hours in the marathon <~ primary goal. We thought that training for a 30+ mile race (volume) and racing a 5K (speed) would give me the best chance of running a fast marathon time.

My marathon progression over the years:
2007 - 3:58:05
2015 - 3:11:16
2015 - 3:07:43
2016 - 3:06:55
2017 - 3:00:06 #brutal
.... then I stopped because triathlon took over and Coach Jonny cut wayyyyyy back on running to focus on my swim and bike. Marathon training and Half Ironman training just don't mix well for me. In fact, I talk a lot about my fitness improvements due in large part to structured bike training using TrainerRoad here:
Despite some of the comments, I wouldn't change a thing about this INTERVIEW. It's 'my' journey. Being a black woman in a sport that lacks diversity has everything to do with why I am relentless in pursuing my goals.

Goal #1:
In my previous blog post I go into more detail, but to sum it up: I ran a 3 hour 45 min 50K last month - low budge, 3 loops by my house, on the sidewalk, my driveway was our fluid station. My buddy Steven Keller paced me through the marathon in 3:09, then I suffered badly those final 5 miles and just tried to stick as close to him as possible. And when I say I suffered, I freakin suffered. But I finished and somehow averaged low 7 minute pace for 31 miles. Ultimately, I think this played a huge part in why I PR'd the marathon on Saturday. It's truly the struggles that make us stronger!

Goal #2:
With such a short time span between the 50K and the marathon, I didn't get a chance to taper for a fast 5K. But I was super excited to pin a bib on my top and do a live in-person race.
Between the high run volume, and still somewhat recovering from that 50K, sub-18 was out of the question. Coach Jonny's instructions were to run 5:55/5:55/then all out the last mile. On a good day I thought I could run 18:15.
Official time: 18:23. I just had nothing left in the tank that last mile. Still, I was happy with the effort and elated that I finally got to do an actual in-person race. And now for the good stuff.......

Goal #3 (but truly the number 1 goal): Run a 2:5X:XX Marathon
In an ideal world I would have been able to race this in mid-December - cooler weather, more recovery time, a few more weeks to gain fitness. However, during this time of uncertainty, when the rare opportunity to race a marathon presents itself, you seize it! I knew Thomas Hicks (race director) was putting together a small, fast, competitive field. It was an honor to receive an elite entry. I'd get to chase some fast ladies. The course would be simple. Just 6.55 miles out, 6.55 miles back, times 2.
I was lucky to get in a 17-mile workout on the race course two weeks ahead of time. In my Zoot Singlet. Their new neon apparel is 🔥🔥

Was I confident I'd break 3 hours? Hell no!! Coach Jonny had me do a key workout before the race and I bombed. Seriously bombed. Literally could not hold 6:50s (goal marathon pace) to save my life and almost walked my sorry butt home. Luckily one workout doesn't determine your fitness. It's the cumulative sum of all the training and hard work.

Race Day
After temperature checks, signing a Covid waver, and going for a pre race jog, they called us (top 25 athletes) to the start line. I looked around and saw futuristic looking Nike shoes everywhere 😨

Come on HOKA Rocket X, you got this!

Thomas blew the horn and we were off. Coach Jonny instructed that under no circumstance do I go through the half marathon faster than 1:30. Unfortunately for me the worst case scenario I envisioned began to unfold. The women took off at a FAST pace and I was quickly dropped. Within the first 2 miles I was completely alone with absolutely no one to run with. One woman went out at sub-2:50 pace and the next 4 women ran together in a pack and were averaging 6:40s. 
Running an entire marathon alone is tough, but I began to think about that 50K I did with Steven. I knew if I could get through that - 31 miles, no spectators, limited support - then I was strong enough to push through this.
First 13 Miles
I did what I was instructed to do and comfortably went through the half marathon in 1:29:57 (6:51 min/mile pace). At the turnaround I saw the race director: "OMG they went out so fast, I just couldn't". For whatever reason I felt the need to explain why I was so far behind 😆

Then the race began
Coach's next set of instructions were to negative split the course (run the second half faster than the first). I took note of where the other women were. Place wasn't important. This race was all about time. BUT, come on, who doesn't want to be on the podium?! I noticed a few women were beginning to fall off the pace and come back to me. That gave me a bit of an adrenaline boost as I gradually reined them in. It is so much easier to be the chaser versus the one being chased. Nothing is worse than going out too fast, being passed, and struggling to finish. I have been there before and it ain't fun.

I dropped down to 6:30s/6:40s by mile 15 and found myself in 4th place. I set my sight on the 3rd place woman.
I passed her at mile 21 and the pain kicked in. With 5 miles to go I was ready for the race to be over. I was hurting! This is when the mind games began. I told myself if I slowed down a little I could still get under 3 hours. I was pretty much looking for any excuse to make the pain stop. But then I thought about this weird *ss conversation I had with my coach:
And so I began saying "I'm a fluffy white cloud". Where "white" came from I'm not sure. Too many discussions on racial inequality with him LOL. But you know what? That ridiculous phrase helped me relax.
I crossed the finish line in 2:57:13. I can't explain how great it felt to finally achieve this goal. Gary Corbitt keeps a list of top US-born Black Female Marathoners, and it is such an honor to now be #16 on this list: https://tedcorbitt.com/black-female-marathon-history/. And truth be told, this inspired me to break 3 hours. I truly wanted to be on this list of talented, impressive women #representationmatters

How we celebrated my marathon and his Triathlete Magazine cover photo shoot
Burgers, Fries, and Beer!

How I recovered
Cryotherapy at DistrictCryo's Arlington, VA location: https://www.districtcryo.com/

Yes, it was freezing. I barely lasted the entire 3 minutes 😅 But it's better than sitting in an ice bath for 20 minutes! Plus, I swear it helped. I actually biked for an hour today. I'm typically useless for an entire week after a marathon.

Last but not least... Gear!
Kit: I typically do road races in a singlet (race top). Not this time. I opted to race in my custom Zoot Sports Triathlon Top. With the Covid situation I wanted to limit my interaction with volunteers. Instead of grabbing the gels they provided on the course, I carried my own. The great thing about Zoot's tri top is that it has a TON of pockets. Don't be shy to race in a tri kit ;-)

Shoes: I've been racing in the HOKA Carbon X since they hit the market last year. They're great! Thought I'd never race in another shoe... then they came out with the Rocket X. OMG! Hands down the best shoe I've ever raced in. Yes, I'm sponsored by HOKA. No, they are not paying me to review this shoe. Just giving my honest opinion since I've tried every shoe they put out in the market.

It's light, but there is still enough cushion that I would be comfortable training in this shoe without fear of injury. Plus it lasts. So far I estimate that I could get about 200 miles before I'd have to replace them. I'd say they are a faster shoe versus the Carbon X, but I truly think this depends on the person. The Rocket X seems to have a narrower toe box.. which I prefer. So much of the return you get from a shoe has to do with how your foot falls (pronation), etc. Hopefully my little review is helpful!

That's all folks. Happy Holidays! And if you are looking for a great gift idea, may I suggest Nia Obotette's "I Am A Triathlete".


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

I 'Raced' a 50K .. and still chasing that pro card

Since I started this blog back in 2012 I have posted a recap after every race. From my very first triathlon (a sprint) to crossing the finish line at the 2019 IRONMAN World Championships. So many ups and downs - from PRs and marathon wins to a major bike crash and just missing qualifying for my pro card. No matter the outcome, I have always found writing cathartic.

Now with COVID and races seemingly on hold, I haven't updated this blog since March!! However *drum roll* I technically raced last weekend.... in the "Steven Keller / Sika Henry 50K". A self-supported, 31-mile ultramarathon through the streets of Newport News and Hampton, VA, made up by yours truly 😅

I'm finally on Strava!

This was originally supposed to be a live, in-person race hosted by Flat-Out Events at the Noland Trail, but it was postponed until next year due to COVID. Lucky for me, my friend Steven asked if I still had plans to run the distance and offered to pace me. Side Note: he won Ultraman Florida, has qualified and raced in Kona yada yada... he's legit.

Finding ways to stay motivated
When Challenge Cancun and IRONMAN 70.3 Eagleman were cancelled this year, plus pools closed and social distancing in place, Coach Jonny gave me about a month of down time. Truth be told, I needed it. I was dealing with so many nagging injuries. While I'm proud of how quickly I came back after that epic crash last year, it took it's toll. I was truly riding that fine line of being in the best shape of my life and red lining before my half ironman in Cancun in April.

I still haven't gotten used to this "new normal" but I'm making the most out of it by doing things I typically struggle to find the time to do. 

Like spending weeks up north with my family (since I'm working remotely for now)
Mom, Dad, Nile (brother), and MOSES the Frenchie <3

Writing a heartfelt article for Bicycling Magazine on what brought me back to this sport after last year's accident, and why I truly believe representation matters:
https://www.bicycling.com/culture/a33511293/sika-henry-triathlon-needs-more-diversity/

And partnering with wonderful companies like HOKA ONE ONE who give their athletes a platform to share personal experiences in their respective sports:


I also set new athletic goals since I won't be racing a triathlon again until 2021. I wish I could say I'm self motivated, but I'm not. I need a carrot. So I wrote down three goals. 1) Race a 50K, 2) Break 18 minutes in the 5K, 3) Race a marathon (haven't done one since 2017... the marathon at the end of an Ironman doesn't count!).

First I did a solo 5K time trial on the track. 
18:39 (5:50, 6:01, 6:11). You know what? I was pleasantly surprised by this. Considering my lack of speed training, previous focus on the half / full ironman, and it being hot and humid, I'm excited that this is my base time. 40 seconds to drop between now and December.

Next up was a 50K. Ugh .... oh man. That.Was.Hard!!! It started out like this...
I was all happy and talkative and enjoying the first loop. Then it gradually began to wear on me. By the end, I wanted to cry 😆 Keep in mind the circumstances. It was three ~10.3 mile loops, hopping on and off sidewalks, with 2 stoplights to navigate every loop. Plus this was self supported so there were no aid stations along the way. We only had one place to grab and dump fuel... my driveway! And last but not least, this was a two-man / woman show. No crowd, support, cheers, nada. Just Steven striding along effortlessly, occasionally glancing back to make sure I wasn't curled up in a ball on Big Bethel Rd.

I'm surprised how similar this felt to a marathon. Going through the half marathon mark I felt AMAZING, but once I hit mile 17 I started to feel a bit tired, less pep in my step. By mile 21 it was a wrap. I was hitting the wall. My legs felt heavy and negative thoughts crept in my head like "why the hell are you out here running 31 miles in the rain." My thoughts must have shown because Steven started yelling out positive affirmations "you're good at negative splitting... stay strong... no 7:30 minute miles allowed". I kept my mouth shut for fear that I would be verbally abusive and he'd leave me out there alone.  

We went through the marathon in 3:09 and let me just be real for a second, had he not been there I would have quit and walked my sorry behind home those last 5 miles.

But I didn't quit! I used every mental game in the book to get to mile 31. Official time: 3:45:26. Faster than I ran my very first marathon. Crazy what you're capable of, right?

What's next....
A marathon! Live, in-person. I have 4 weeks to recover, rebuild and race the Tidewater Strider Marathon in Chesapeake, VA (side note: registration is closed). 

My Marathon Progression:
2007 - 3:58:05
2015 - 3:11:16
2015 - 3:07:43
2016 - 3:06:55
2017 - 3:00:06
2020 - ???????

Excited to see what time I can run next month! And last but not least, since this is my blog and I can say what I want, go out and VOTE ;-)