The real story starts years ago. But the immediate story begins in 2016, when I finally put together a season of consistent training after years of battling injuries. Much to my surprise, I ran 2:49:21 in the 2016 Chicago Marathon, and felt great doing it. I spent a day enjoying the accomplishment, and then began to wonder if I could go faster. What else could I achieve? I felt a fire within me.
But 2017 went in a different direction. I had significant work obligations for the early part of the year, and my training took a hit. As spring rolled around, I ramped up my training and set my sights on the California International Marathon (CIM), a December marathon in Sacramento, known for its fast course. But just as I was starting my marathon training, I noticed a pain in my heel. I tried running through it, but soon could barely walk. My marathon dreams disintegrated, along with my plantar fascia.
When I got back to running in late 2017 I did a gut check to see if the fire was still there. I felt scared — scared of more injuries, scared about balancing work demands and training, and scared of setting a goal that I couldn’t achieve. But I also couldn’t let go of the feeling that I had more in me. As a masters runner, I felt a sense of urgency. And I knew that I had to keep at it.
In early 2018, I started working with a coach. I hadn’t worked with a coach since college, but I needed guidance to get faster. Deep down, I think I also knew that my instinct to always do more could be self-destructive. In my first conversation with my coach, I blurted out that I wanted to try for an Olympic Trials Qualifying (OTQ) marathon time of 2:45. He didn’t tell me that I was crazy. Instead, we got to work.
In addition to running, I tried to improve my sleep, core strengthening, and nutrition. During the spring and summer, I ran PRs in 10k, 15k, and ten mile races. But I still faced my biggest running goal, the marathon. I once again set my sights on CIM. Because of chronic injuries, I couldn’t do the high mileage marathon training I had previously done. I had to think creatively to give myself the best chance of success.
With this in mind, I called my coach and made a crazy proposal. I wanted to ask for a leave of absence from work to try altitude training. As the words came out of my mouth, I felt a huge sense of impostor syndrome; I wasn’t a fast enough runner to justify this. But my coach responded that altitude training would be a great opportunity, provided that I would enjoy the experience. We decided that, work permitting, I would go to Flagstaff, which is 7000 feet above sea level and would likely have decent weather in the fall. Figuring out the timing for altitude training is like a puzzle, but I needed to be at altitude for at least 35 days to give my body sufficient time to produce more red blood cells. I planned to come down to sea level a little over two weeks out from CIM — enough in advance of the marathon to allow for one long, hard effort at sea level prior to the race, but close enough to the race that I would retain the physiological gains from altitude training for CIM.
I asked my boss for a leave of absence, trying to put into words why this goal was so important to me. I explained that taking a shot at an OTQ felt like the culmination of years of work. She was immediately supportive. As I told my colleagues that I was taking a leave to pursue a passion project, I wasn’t sure if I should feel like a trailblazer or just selfish. My colleagues were universally supportive, even those who would doubtless have to do extra work because I would be out of the office. My partner, Dan, who is also a runner, was equally supportive. He seemed to intuitively understand why I wanted a chance to focus on training and see what I could do. Not for a minute did I take for granted how lucky I was to have all this support.
Into Thin Air
When I arrived in Flagstaff on October 8, it was thirty degrees and the sky was gray. I stood outside the cottage that would be my home for the next five and a half weeks, wondering what I had gotten myself into. My AirBnB host told me that Nick Willis, the two-time Olympic medalist from New Zealand, had also stayed in the cottage. I hoped that was an auspicious sign.
I ate my first Flag dinner at Diablo Burger, a small hipster cafe that seemed straight out of Brooklyn. I sat in my hat and gloves, unable to get warm, chewing my veggie burger on an artisanal English muffin and felt lost. It had been tough to leave the familiarity of DC, particularly my running group, as I felt a certain comfort in chasing my audacious goal alongside friends. For months, my training partners had selflessly helped me through my workouts and long runs and pushed me to get the most out of myself. Now, here I was in Flagstaff, not knowing a single person, not knowing where to run, and not knowing how altitude training would impact me. The whole endeavor was risky at best. But it was also a rare opportunity to live like a professional runner, albeit a slow one; to train at altitude; and to experience the running mecca that is Flagstaff. And I was determined to make the most of it.
The next morning I set out for my first run at altitude. I ran down the block and found the entrance to Thorpe Park. I just started congratulating myself for finding somewhere to run when the trail started climbing. And climbing. And climbing. I started to breathe heavily. My stride started to slow. And in a blink, there it was. I was basically walking. Without even making it to the top of the hill, I turned around and ran home, feeling defeated. Later, I heard from other runners that the trail eventually flattens and is a great running spot. I had too much PTSD to return to the park to check it out for myself.
On a whim, I reached out to Kiya Dandena, a professional runner living in Flagstaff, who had placed third at CIM the previous year. He had a friendly smile on social media. I sent him a note asking if he’d be willing to chat about the Flagstaff running community. In the first of what would become many acts of incredible kindness from the Flagstaff running community, Kiya met me for coffee and spent hours sharing local knowledge. He described good places for runs and workouts; he gave me contact information for potential training partners; he invited me to participate in a strength class for runners at Hypo2Sport (a multi-purpose center devoted to working with athletes); he gave me the name of a good masseuse; he told me about various facebook pages that people in Flagstaff use to connect for runs (the Flagstaff running community is robust enough to support multiple Facebook pages, including: Flagstaff Running Community; Flagstaff Long Runs; and the Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association); and, perhaps most importantly, he encouraged me. He said that at altitude it was important not to force things, but to let the running come to me. I had no idea what that meant, but as the weeks continued, I started to understand.
The Bagel Run
During my first week in Flagstaff, I decided to join the Bagel Run, a Flagstaff community run that occurs every Thursday morning. I knew the run started at 8 a.m. at Biff’s Bagels in downtown Flagstaff, but had no idea who would show up, or what distance and pace they would run. When I arrived at Biff’s at 7:45am, I didn’t see anyone in running clothes. I lingered, wondering if this would be the Thursday that no one showed up. At 8am, as if on cue, multiple runners appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. In my peripheral view, I saw a thin blond woman dressed entirely in Hoka gear. She looked exactly like Kellyn Taylor, who had recently won and set a course record at Grandma’s Marathon. When she introduced herself as Kellyn, I felt simultaneously thrilled and terrified. I was about to run with Kellyn Taylor.
We started the run, and fortunately for me, everyone kept the pace relaxed. I learned that runners from the Northern Arizona Elite training group, the group that Kellyn trains with, often join the Bagel Run for an easy run. In addition to Kellyn, the Bagel Run group included a couple other Northern Arizona Elite runners, a few other local runners, and some runners who were temporarily in Flagstaff for altitude training. I met two guys from Great Britain who had come to Flagstaff to train for the NYC marathon, and felt reassured that other non-professional runners had taken off work to train in Flagstaff. Over the next five weeks, I learned that pros, non-pros, and runners of all speeds come to Flagstaff to train. Chasing a running dream in Flagstaff is quite ordinary and, in fact, almost expected. I explained to the Bagel Run group that I was still acclimating to altitude. Several people reassured me that things would get easier. Kellyn turned to me and said, “I’m just going to put this out there. It might suck the whole time you’re here. But it’ll pay dividends.” I hung onto her words.
Starting to Acclimate
Kiya and others on the Bagel Run gave me contact information for potential training partners, and I began scheduling runs. First up, I met Diane Nukuri and Leah Rosenfeld, both professional runners based out of Flagstaff. We met for their easy run, but I was nonetheless intimidated to runs with pros. Diane and Leah turned out to be the opposite of intimidating; they are both extremely welcoming and friendly. We chatted as we ran down a dirt road and, to my relief, I managed to keep up. I was so happy to run with them that I practically begged for more runs together. Leah told me, “We all could use the company during these miles at 7000 feet!” Leah and Diane became great running partners, particularly on our recovery days.
My first Flagstaff workout was a short tempo run. My anxiety about the workout increased when I woke up to snow. I met up with a woman who was also training for CIM so that we could warm-up together. The snow, which was not sticking, made for a lovely backdrop as we started jogging down Woody Mountain Road. We turned around and my running partner described a place where I could do my tempo. She must have sensed my directional challenges, and so ran behind me shouting directions. Even after she finished her run, she got her car and drove behind me to make sure I didn’t get lost. The kindness of the Flag running community struck again! In an email to a DC friend, I described the difficulty of running at altitude and the generosity of the Flag running community. He replied with what could have been my Flagstaff mantra: “Great to hear that you’re making friends and sucking wind.”
Running in Flag felt like a different sport than running in D.C., as the challenge was almost entirely cardiovascular. At the beginning of runs and on uphills, I always struggled with my breathing. Sometimes it felt so hard to breathe that my brain seemed to click into a panic mode. Usually, though not always, I would feel better as I got into the rhythm of the run. Although running got easier for me during the five weeks I was in Flag, it never became second nature, the way it feels for me in D.C. I ran with others whenever possible to distract myself from how hard it was, and tried to take advantage of running with pros to observe their habits and look for replicable lessons. My biggest take away was that they took recovery seriously and kept easy days easy.
After my first week in Flag, the streak of frigid, gray days turned into crisp, bright ones. My mood improved. With each day, I expanded my comfort zone — I didn’t need to use GPS every time I got into the car; my favorite coffee store knew my order; and runners actually texted me to set up runs. I started to embrace the challenges of altitude training. While running, I could think beyond the number of miles that I had left and appreciate the light on the aspen trees or the snow covered mountain tops. I gradually developed a daily rhythm. I usually ran in the mid morning (one Flag runner with an office job described to me how tough it is to find other Flag runners willing to run during pre-work hours) and did one or two cross training sessions in the afternoon, either at the gym or the Northern Arizona University (NAU) pool, or sometimes an easy second run. In the evening, I would cook and eat dinner and do core strengthening. I confess to watching a fair amount of Netflix and sleeping at least 9 hours a night, but even without a job, I never felt at a loose end.
When I decided to set up camp in Flagstaff, some of the particularly passionate runners in my life began to consider visiting. I was incredibly lucky that in addition to a couple visits from Dan, two friends from my running group, Amanda Hicks and Kristen Serafin, were able to spend a long weekend in Flag. I was thrilled to have company and also a terrible host. My coach had told me that altitude camp has two main benefits: the physiological gains and the opportunity to eliminate distractions and focus on training. In Flag, I was able to focus like a laser beam on training. I hung out with my guests only in between training sessions. But Amanda and Kristen were very self-sufficient and the camaraderie made my daily routines feel like a real training camp. Amanda whipped up a series of healthy and delicious meals and we would sit around in the evenings, trying to stay awake until a semi-respectable hour, chatting while we stretched, foam rolled, and put our tired legs in Amanda’s NormaTec boots.
The Long and Winding (Dirt) Road
Flag is a running haven for many reasons, not least because of its almost endless supply of long dirt roads, stretching for miles and perfect for runs. I did almost all my easy runs on dirt roads, and my often injured body felt much less beaten up.
On one of my first long runs, which also overlapped with Amanda’s visit, we decided to join the run advertised on the Flagstaff Long Runs facebook page. Deciphering the nicknames and abbreviations that people used to describe running routes on the facebook pages initially felt like reading a foreign language. Amanda and I headed out, looking for “FR 222.” We arrived at one dirt road, debated whether it was the right place, and then drove to a different spot, only to return after a few minutes to the first place. We were relieved when we saw another runner pull up. Step one to a successful long run accomplished: we found the meeting spot.
We started running down the dirt road with the two guys who had also shown up. After about three minutes, one of the guys said, “I have a tempo today” and took off. The other runner, Bob Tusso, said that he wasn’t training for anything specific and recently had been more focused on pacing people. Although I’d only known him a few minutes, I asked if he’d be willing to pace me in some workouts. He didn’t say no, and I took it as a positive sign that he did my entire run with me despite his stated intention to go a much shorter distance. Later that day I emailed my friend, Marty, who had paced me through countless workouts in DC and was consistently willing to do whatever my coach threw at me. I told him, “I think I found my Flagstaff Marty.”
Lake Mary Workouts
The following week I did my first Lake Mary Road workout. Lake Mary is an infamous Flagstaff workout location, as it stretches for miles with a fairly flat terrain (by Flagstaff standards) and is marked every quarter mile. I approached my Lake Mary initiation with some trepidation. I met Bob and Leah at the “mailboxes” which was near the four mile marker on Lake Mary Road. Meeting there enabled us to warm up on a dirt road that intersects with Lake Mary, and more importantly meant that we skipped the big hill in the first few miles. Leah and Bob were doing a different workout, but I knew it would help me to meet up with others, even if we were doing different things. We started our warm up and I immediately couldn’t breathe. After warming up, Leah went to change her shoes, but I had to combat my nerves by jumping right into my mile repeats. I started my first mile repeat, and felt surprisingly relaxed. I looked at my watch as I finished the interval and was thrilled to have nailed it. With pride, I looked over my shoulder at what I had just run. And my neck went up, and up… and only then did I realize that my mile had been downhill.
On another morning, I met Kiya’s friend, Will Baldwin, who had agreed to help me through a series of three mile intervals. Will previously ran with an elite running group in Boulder and now balanced a high-level of running with teaching geometry at a local high school. I learned during our warm-up that he had also paced several world class runners, including Shalane Flanagan, Allie Kieffer, and Betsy Saina. This epitomized the Flagstaff running community: a guy who had paced an Olympic medalist and New York City Marathon winner was also happy to pace me. When I profusely thanked him for helping me out, he shrugged it off as if to say: hey, I have to get some miles in anyway.
We started the first interval and almost immediately I couldn’t keep up with Will. Even in my exhaustion I had to admire Will’s pacing abilities. He would look over his shoulder without breaking stride, see me struggling, and slightly slow down while motioning for me to get on his heels. I started the last interval, determined to finish strong. I soon felt my brain growing hazy with hypoxemia but one question pierced into my consciousness: had Will ever paced a workout this slow before?
I had a couple weeks of good workouts, followed by a couple weeks of bad workouts. I felt frustrated because I had assumed that the running would continue to get easier. Runners told me that altitude workouts may not accurately gauge fitness, but I still needed a confidence boost.
Will agreed to join me on a long run that included both a fartlek and tempo segment. We met at Bellemont, a long dirt road that started with a slight incline. When we hit the fartlek, we were still climbing. Will asked me how many total miles I predicted we would do and I realized that I had no idea, given that the fartlek was based on time segments, not milage. He pointed out in his very relaxed way that the road went for about 60 miles so he figured we should turn around at some point. We flipped around for the tempo portion and now had the advantage of the downhill. A voice in my head was saying that hitting paces on a downhill is cheating, but another part of my brain was just happy to finally hit my workout paces. With a mile of the tempo left, I saw the end of the dirt road and realized we had misjudged how much road we would need to finish the tempo. We swung around, once again headed uphill and now we also had a significant headwind. I felt like I was hitting the figurative wall at the same time that I was hitting an actual wall of wind. I knew this would throw off my pace, but it wasn’t until I was done that I realized I had run the last mile 45 seconds over pace. I had really needed a good workout, but now I felt even more deflated. I barely spoke to Will as I got into my car and drove home. The grind continued.
How Not to Visit the Grand Canyon
During one of Dan’s visits, we decided to do a day trip to the Grand Canyon, 75 miles north of Flagstaff and a popular day trip. For some reason that probably made sense at the time, we picked a day on which I also had a tough workout. I met Bob in the early morning to do a tempo run, followed by mile repeats. When we finished, I felt more exhausted than I had felt after any workout or race in the past couple years. Even after my coffee and oatmeal, I struggled to stay awake. When we arrived at the Grand Canyon, I found myself asking Dan if we really needed to get out of the car to see the canyon. I managed to rally for a short hike, which reinvigorated me, at least until I felt hunger setting in. As I trudged through the return hike, all uphill, I could hardly believe that a fellow participant in my strength and conditioning class, Jim Walmsley, had run rim-to-rim-to-rim in 5:55:21 (the Fastest Known Time for this run). By the time we made it back to the car, I was full on hangry. We drove to a small town outside one of the canyon’s entry gates. There were a few restaurants, but none that met my vegetarian, picky eater standards. I was too hungry and tired to think straight, which did not help the situation. Happily, Dan discovered a small gas station and grocery store that seemed to cater to campers. Amid the variations of s’more ingredients, I found gas station tortillas and hummus. After chowing down, I felt a hundred times better and could only wonder how I had made such a rookie runner mistake: failing to bring snacks.
As my time in Flagstaff wound down, I was simultaneously eager to go home and assess my sea-level fitness and also nostalgic about leaving. Perhaps because I was chasing my ultimate running dream, the Flagstaff training block felt particularly formative. I sent Kiya a text thanking him for his help, and he responded that he’d see me soon, or at least on the starting line in Atlanta in 2020. I felt a deep appreciation that even after watching so many runners cycle through Flag, hoping to turn their hard work into the next level of success, Kiya and others were so encouraging. I also knocked on all the wood I could find.
For my last Flag workout, I planned to meet Bob at NAU’s track. I got there before him and started warming up on the track. A few minutes later, I saw him enter the track through a back gate. I had been using my temporary NAU membership, which was a pay per use membership, to access the track. I had to laugh that it took me until my last workout to realize that I could have walked in through the back gate. I recalled my coach telling me that I would probably just be getting the hang of things at altitude when it was time to leave. Yup, I thought. Right again.
On my last morning in Flag, I headed out for a run as the sun was rising. I had visions of an epic final run during which I reflected on my experiences in Flag. But despite the perfect backdrop of the brilliant red sky, I was too distracted by pain to reflect on anything except what was wrong with my hamstring. I had noticed the pain a few weeks prior, but now it was impacting my gait. I shuffled through the run at a slow pace even by Flagstaff standards.
Chiropractor To the Stars
Before heading back to the east coast, I stopped in Phoenix to see Dr. John Ball, a chiropractor renowned for treating a number of the top runners in the world. When I initially called Dr. Ball’s office to request an appointment, his receptionist asked me if I was a professional runner. As soon as “no” came out of mouth, I knew that was the wrong answer. Before she could say anything, I quickly back-peddled and explained that although I was not sponsored, I had won money in races. There was silence on the other end of the phone for a few seconds, and then the receptionist told me that Dr. Ball was very busy working with Olympians. I hung up and kicked myself for not advocating more vigorously. I figured it couldn’t hurt to be persistent so I drafted an email that listed my fastest race times, and my age graded percentage for each time. Immediately after sending it to Dr. Ball’s office, and surely before anyone had read it, my phone rang. Dr. Ball’s assistant told me that she had talked to Dr. Ball and that he would be happy to see me.
I headed to my appointment with Dr. Ball on my way out of town. Dr. Ball’s office walls were decorated with photos of the running world’s best of the best, inscribed with messages of gratitude to Dr. Ball. As I waited to see Dr. Ball, a Flag friend texted me, saying, “Oh, you have an appointment with John Ball? I’ll talk to you in four hours.” Indeed, Dr. Ball spent several hours with me. He spoke softly but definitively and contorted my body in ways I hardly thought possible. He would do some body work, have me run on his treadmill to gauge how I felt running, and then do more work. With each treadmill cycle my pain improved, and I understood why so many runners consider Dr. Ball a miracle worker. As I lay on his table writhing in pain, I asked if he saw any connection between the caliber of runner he treated and their pain tolerance during his treatment. He immediately said: no. I felt better about all my grimacing.
The morning after I saw Dr. Ball, I hit the pavement for my first run at sea level in five and a half weeks. I felt like a gazelle as I effortlessly ran through the streets of Phoenix. But when I looked at my watch, I had the sober realization that I was running slower than I had consistently run before going to Flagstaff. My coach later told me that I should not expect to go faster at sea level, but to be better equipped to buffer fatigue. I figured that would be useful in a marathon and just hoped that my leg turnover would return quickly. I flew from Phoenix to Philadelphia, where I ran a half marathon as a tempo effort. I felt controlled throughout the race and enjoyed the ease with which I could breathe.
My hamstring, which had felt better after seeing Dr. Ball, started to hurt again after the half marathon. I assumed it would improve as I tapered for the race. But a few days later while doing strides I felt a sharp, shooting pain that stopped me in my tracks. For the next several days, I felt such significant pain that I couldn’t run. After everything I had put into this training block, I could hardly believe that a week before the race, I could not run down my block. I tried to stay positive, but inside I was devastated.
California International Marathon
Every day I went through an internal debate of whether I should do the race. I knew I had no chance of running under 2:45 if my stride was compromised. My coach wisely suggested that we not focus on what time I could run, but on whether running would aggravate my injury. Perhaps due to anti-inflammatories or the lack or running, by the day before the race, I felt like I could make it through a marathon without making the injury worse. My coach did not want me to run unless I agreed to a conservative race plan to decrease the risk of making my hamstring worse. After a two-year dream of running an OTQ at CIM, I struggled to let go of this goal. But I knew that if I could shift my mindset, there were still positives that I could take away from the experience. I could certainly use practice with fueling, pacing, staying calm before the race, and staying patient during the race. I also realized that while I might feel frustrated with a conservative race, I would be even more disappointed to not run at all. As a frequently injured runner, I have to remember that any day I can toe the line is a good day. I agreed to let go of trying to run a sub-2:45 marathon.
My coach told me to run the first ten miles at between 6:45-7:00/mile pace and to progress throughout the race so that I would run the fastest miles towards the finish. I started the race, consistently running 6:25-6:30 miles. With that reckless mindset that is all too easy to slip into at the beginning of a marathon, I convinced myself that my coach meant: start at a relaxed pace. Luckily for me, this was one of the few times that ignoring a marathon race plan did not backfire. After ten miles, I started to pick up the pace and continued to progress throughout the race. My hamstring hurt but not so much that I felt I was doing damage. The miles ticked by, and I saw Dan and my coach a few times each, which inspired me to keep pushing.
In the last couple miles of the race, I felt like people were coming back to me. My coach and Dan were both going crazy on the sidelines, motivating me to dig deep. As I turned the last corner with about 50 meters to the finish line, I heard a spectator cheer my name and saw one of the British guys from the Bagel Run. I ran down the final stretch, with flashes from my training cycle going through my mind: the laps around Hains Point and the runs on long dirt roads in Flagstaff; the painful workouts and the magical feeling when I hit my stride; the challenges, the exhaustion, the laughs shared, and the connections made and deepened through the many, many miles. I thought of my DC running community, who consistently pushed me, encouraged me, and elevated my running; the Flagstaff running community, who generously showed me the ropes of training in Flag; my PT, Robert Gillanders, who literally kept me running; my boss and colleagues, who gave me the opportunity to focus on my training; friends from all stages of life who supported and celebrated this endeavor; my coach, who has made me a faster, smarter, and better runner; and Dan, who lived through every step of the journey and never stopped believing in me. I crossed the finish line in 2:47:33.
I told my coach a few weeks before the race that I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything other than an OTQ, even if it was a PR. (For the record, he did not think this was a useful frame.) But I felt totally content as I crossed the line. I gave everything I could on that day. I managed to PR and to negative split by over a minute, with my fastest miles coming at the end of the race. Would I be happier if I had run under 2:45? Absolutely. But in reflecting on the past year, despite failing to meet my goal, I feel so grateful for the experiences I had in pursuit of it. I strengthened my mental fortitude; developed a deeper appreciation for the bond among runners as we each try to push our limits, whatever they are; and learned that chasing a dream creates a vulnerability, but also a vitality. I stretched myself in new ways, and bring all this with me as I move forward. And as for a sub-2:45 marathon… well, I’ll keep trying.