Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Caroline White's Race Report

Family and Friends,

So here you have it; the long anticipated Twin Cities Marathon race report! It’s been a tough, exhilarating journey, and I’m excited to share the story with you.

Upon reviewing this and on the verge of sending, I need to say; yes, the race is obviously important. But this email would lead you to believe success is all about race day. It's not. It's about all the hard work leading up to the marathon, and there is NO WAY I could do any of this without your love and support. It's the understatement of the century to say, but I couldn't do this without thank you for what you've enabled.

At the beginning of each 4 year Olympic cycle, the Olympic Committee determines a standard potential athletes must meet in order to compete in the Olympic trials. 2:47 was the standard for the Beijing trials (which were held in Boston in April 2008). Shortly after Bejing, the Olympic Committee set 2:46 as the standard for the 2012 trials. So to compete in the trials, one must run a marathon in 2:46 at a USATF certified event. The first opportunity to qualify (and only opportunity in 2009) was in the Twin Cities Marathon, held on October 4th.

In February 2009, I competed in and won the Armed Forces Cross Country Championship. This win served as a leverage point for me to be assigned to the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). Initially, after graduation from University of Maryland, I was scheduled to start pilot training right away. However, the Air Force agreed to delay my start date and let me train in Colorado for the Twin Cities Marathon. When the Air Force allowed this opportunity, I was very grateful, but understood the reality that this was an opportunity to qualify for the trials, and it would take some serious, grueling training to meet this goal.

Explaining the goal to friends, I frequently heard “ohh I’m sure you can do it, you always do what you set your mind to!” I would respond with, ‘I don’t think you quite understand how ambitious this is.’ Running a 2:46 is no small feat. It would require a big PR from my Boston marathon in April, giving me 6 months to drop 10 minutes. But I had my heart set on qualifying, so my tenure in Colorado consisted of running, running, and some more running. I averaged between 80-100 miles a week (my peak week was 114), plus core strengthening and cross training.

WCAP also allowed me the opportunity to race in the national road racing circuit, where high caliber athletes compete for national titles and large prize purses. This was great because one, I love racing. Two, I got to travel to misc places like Michigan, Connecticut, and Ohio that I would not otherwise be exposed to. Three, I got to spend time with some running legends (including individuals who competed in Athens and Beijing in various distance races). And four, it was great to be the military’s representative. When toeing the start line, athletes wore jersey’s for their various sponsors (Asics, Nike, etc.) and it was pretty cool to be the individual chosen to wear the Air Force’s blue and white jersey.

At my first race in Iowa, I met Magdalena Boulet, who ran the marathon for the US in Beijing. When shaking her hand, I couldn’t believe the situation…wow, I’ve been tracking your progress and watched you race on TV (in addition to the rest of the world), but I’m actually shaking your hand. Woah. Of course, all of this can out as, “hmmner nerm caroline white …”

But the races went well and I made some serious progress. For instance, in Michigan I ran the 10 mile race in 59:36, which was a big mile stone to break an hour. It was also sweet to spend quality with my running idols…the night before my Flint race, I ran into Magda in the hotel lobby, “Hi Caroline!” (oh my God, you actually know my name) “What are your dinner plans? You want to grab something with us?”....(with huge eyes and a gaping mouth) ‘uhhhh, YES…err, I mean, okay.’ When recounting this experience to a friend, I told him dinner was like watching running celebrities walk out of Runner’s World magazine and into this restaurant. His response to this was, “Caroline, you’ve got to understand that your idol is quickly becoming your peer,” which was an inspiring notion to me.

My Colorado training went fantastic, and generally injury free (with a few foot problems here and there, but nothing too serious). Before I knew it, taper week came and a message in my inbox read “United Flight 387; prepare for your upcoming trip”…..I hope I’m prepared! I put in a ton of hard work in over the summer, and it’s time to cash out.

My parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all traveled to Minneapolis for the event. I was grateful for the support and love being with my family (well, not so much with Uncle Mike), but at the same time, it built up the pressure of this event. In fact, the night before the marathon I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been….I’ve competed at high levels before but nothing had such a black and white outcome. For instance, before the World Ironman Competition in Kona, I was nervous yet had a reasonable goal; to give it my best and see what I could do (and I achieved that, 12th wasn’t to shabby). With this race though, it’s really all or none. Not only had I set my own expectations, but I’d feel bad for having everyone travel to witness a let down. I didn’t want to dwell on this….or the fact that this is the only shot I have to qualify before or during pilot training…no, I need to shut out these thoughts, stay positive, and get to bed. Easy enough, right?

Well I did make it to sleep, went through my morning routine, and got to the start line. For this race I was considered an ‘elite athlete,’ so I got to start in the very front and not fight the masses. The race plan my coach and I created was to run 6:17-6:20 miles throughout the first 20 miles, and push it to the max for the last 6. The Boston marathon taught me the importance of not going out too fast and sticking to your strategy, otherwise it will (painfully) catch up to you in the end. So I was fixated on the number 6:17. My coach also warned me, “there will be a group of women trying to qualify just like you, stay with the pack if it works, but they are probably going to go out too fast and fade. Remember, your well trained and can do this, but you have to run it smart.” Okay, stick with you plan…6:17’s…stay calm.

The gun went off and I tried to keep my nerves under control, and find my pace. I tried to feel out my rhythm and waited for the first mile mark….6:03. Okay, your fast, the first mile is always tough but slow down…

Mile 2—6:07…Slow some more.

Mile 3—6:27…not so much!

Mile 4—6:04….Find the middle.

Mile 5—6:02…Nope.

Mile 6—6:48…Holy Hell, that’s not all. Is my watch broken??

Mile 7—6:00….*$%#$**! What is going on?? In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious what was going on…my nerves were totally throwing me off. And it’s not as though I’m incapable of pacing a 6:17. Two week before TCM I ran a half marathon at goal marathon pace and was spot on….but the difference was the gravity of this event. So, I had a little heart to heart with myself, forget the last 7 miles, find your groove, you KNOW you can do this.

After that self talk, I found my efficient, effortless rhythm. I was nervous that I’d screwed the race with that initial nonsense, but got back to the plan and felt good. No, I felt great. Off in the distance I could see the pack of women hoping to qualify that my coach warned me about, but I didn’t chase them and stuck with my groove. (note: it’s not advised to find your groove this late in a race)

During races, I try to block out distractions and focus on my strategy. Despite this, two spectators seem to stick out in my memory...2 nuns dressed in traditional black habits holding a poster which read “Kick Ass, Sinners!” (since it was Sunday, and not being in church, I guess runners are default sinners). At no other city then St. Paul would you witness this...The sight made me smile; well I guess I’d rather laugh with the sinners then cry with the saints, because sinners are much more fun.

There was a race clock posted at the ½ way mark, which I crossed in in 1:21.22…A little fast, but this race is salvageable…stick with the plan. So I continued to knock out the miles at my goal pace and pressed through. Sure enough, the pack of women was thinning out; one by one, women were peeling off and out of my sight picture. When passing the faders I felt boosted confidence—I'm not going to die off like her, in fact I feel great, keep knocking out the 6:17s and you’ll finish strong.

Mile 15-19 directed us NW, back to toward Minneapolis and into a 10-12 mph headwind. Up until now, it had been negligible or a crosswind, but when I turned the corner at 15 the blast to the face wasn’t encouraging. Your doing fine, just push through it. Coincidentally, I found a broad shouldered male around mile 16 who was running right at pace. Perfect. This is my guardian angel. It was really nice to have a break, but short lived. Just past mile 17 my angel send stopped and literally sat down on the side of the road. Hmmm, someone seems to be sending me mixed signals.

About mile 18 the entire remaining pack of women was slowing down. I ran with them for about quarter mile and was tempted to use the massive wind block, but had to let em go to stay on pace, don’t sink with that ship, keep moving.

I made it through the headwind with a few miles just slightly behind pace. Soon enough, the turn East towards St. Paul at mile 19 relieved me of the headwind, and I was feeling strong.

When questioning TCM veterans, invariably you will hear “it’s a pretty good course, until you get to the end. There’s a substantial hill to deal with.” This hill had been haunting me all summer. The elevation profile indicated it was a gradual climb over three miles with varying grades along the way. I was curious how it would compare to the Colorado training, and how my body could deal with it so late in the race. Well, there’s one way to find out. The first mile of the hill (mile 21) I was exactly on pace—6:17. Perfect! Keep it up. But unfortunately I couldn’t; the next mile of hill took its toll on the legs—6:43. Uh oh, push it out. At this point, I also realized my destiny relied in the next 1.5 miles…if I can make over the hill feeling strong, I would have this thing in the bag. But if the hill drained me….good bye qualifying. Mile 23—6:37. Your almost there, just push over this last bit of hill.

My coach and I planned on not holding back the last 6 miles of the race and going all out. No more pacing, just 100% to the end. I knew some of the wind section and hills slowed me down, and I could not drop much below the 6:17 pace. But the last portion of the hill left me feeling tired, and there was just a smidge left in the tank. I hit the 24 mark in 6:23—you’ve got 2.2 miles left , and not much margin (if any) to spare.

Come on legs, take me home.

I was trying the best I could to keep my form through mile 24, but couldn't find my normal efficient rythm. It was getting harder and harder to get smooth leg turn over. I know this hurts, but you’ve got to push.

I ran mile 25 in 6:30. Next to the 25 mile marker was a race clock reading 2:37.47 Ohhh no, I better make this. I’ve got 1.2 miles left, so this next mile needs to be…..uhhh ……(turns out I’m not the greatest at mental math, particularly when my brain is oxygen deprived). After struggling, and loosing, to 3rd grade math skills I came to conclude it doesn’t matter what the margin is, continue to give 100%, but you can’t run another 6:30 and qualify. YOU HAVE GOT TO PUSH.

I made the final turn of the course and could see the finish line in the distance about ½ mile out. I couldn’t read the race clock, but kept on pushing through the escalating pain. I had no idea what is going on with the crowds, other runners, winds, scenery, etc. It could be midnight in the arctic for all I know….I was entirely fixed on the finish line and the illegible race clock. After what seemed like an eternity, I passed the 26 mile marker in 6:13 and could read the clock…2:44 and change. Oh my God, I’m actually going to do this. I’m going to qualify.

I’d like to describe that last minute and twenty seconds, but I can’t give the moment justice. Running the final .2 miles will stay with me forever. I crossed the finish line in 2:45.21 (6:18.66 mile average), and with 39 seconds to spare I met my goal. I qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials.

My family greeted me at the finish line shortly there after. Dad was shouting “YOU DID IT! I CANT BELIEVE IT!” and mom was speechless, gushing with tears. After barely surviving my parent’s jaws of death hugs, my dad told me being at the finish line was one of the most nerve wrecking moments of parenting. Apparently watching the clock tick pass 2:43 and no sight of Caroline about killed mom. “Well what can I say dad? I wanted to make your day interesting.”

My coach and I could not be more excited about future racing. A few things to consider; most every elite runner I’ve met raced in college; I competed in my first road race less then 2 years ago; I am 24 years old; and women tend to peak in the marathon in their mid 30’s. Basically, there’s a future in these legs and I can’t tell you how motivating the idea of finding their potential is.

So what happens next? Tomorrow I leave my Colorado utopia for Sheppard AFB, TX to start the next chapter of my life; pilot training. Leaving Colorado is unfortunate, but I’m excited to start the next challenge. Pilot training will be 13 months, and I look forward to find what the future holds, because right now possibilities seem endless. But the few things I know with certainty,

1) I only have one way of operating; go big or go home. And this mentality applies to pilot training. It’s exciting to have the chance to earn my wings and I hope to excel at Sheppard. Does success in athletics indicate an aptitude for being a pilot? Who knows….only time will tell.

2) I truly love running and want to see what I can do with it. I will continue to train as much as the demands of pilot training allow.

3) The Olympic Trials are scheduled to be held in New York City in November of 2011. Mark your calendar.

1 comment:

bh said...

I'm a runner in the DC metro area. I check out your blog on occasion and noticed this post. Congrats to Caroline! She is an inspiration to me.