The Limit Does Not Exist – How I Fixed my Mindset While Training for the 2019 Chicago Marathon

The marathon training cycle for the 2019 Chicago marathon will always be remembered as the one where I fell in love with oatmeal, and the one where I stopped listening to my own negative self-talk. It will always be the one where I realized setting limits for myself is an absolute waste of time. 

I started off this year training for a half marathon in Atlanta to visit my sister. I wanted to run a half, not to PR, but to enjoy time with my sister and celebrate my love of running. I also decided that I would be running as a charity runner for the 2019 Chicago Marathon for the Alzheimer’s Association, which was very near and dear to my heart. After a fantastic half with my sister, I decided I might as well look ahead to my marathon goal and sign up for a custom training plan with my coach I had worked with the previous year. Little did I know how much my life was about to change. 

There was a little voice in my head that was saying that the goal was a Boston qualifying time, but I didn’t dare say it out loud. When it did come up, it was usually in a “yes, I would love to qualify but I’m just not fast enough”. It was like I was denying any possibility that it could happen. But that little voice lingered and I dialed in to my goal…

I made sure to be 100% focused on every workout I was given. If I was hesitant to see if I could hit certain paces for some of the interval and tempo work, I did it on a treadmill just so I could set the speed. 

I spent hours upon hours reading running articles and posts from various running magazines and asked for advice from the facebook groups that I was a part of to learn more about how I could be a better runner. 

I focused on how I was fueling my body. I made sure to get in the right complex/simple carbs, protein, fats and micronutrients to keep my body operating to its full potential. 

I spent Friday evenings going to bed very early and up before the sun for Saturday long runs. I would wake up at 3 or 4 am if I needed to get a workout in or a long run done before work or first thing on a Saturday. 

Marathon training was not new to me being my 7th one, but I felt more focused than I had ever been in the past. I wanted to make sure I did everything I possibly could to get that BQ I had dreamed of for so long. 

Two weeks before the marathon, I was driving with my fiancé and somehow we got on the topic of our childhood experiences and I reflected on why I loved running so much. I am sure it was a slight case of the taper crazies and being incredibly emotional, but I couldn’t get through the story without tearing up. When I think back on my biggest challenge growing up and a challenge even to this day, it would be feeling a sense of belonging or “fitting in”. After getting cut from the high school volleyball team just a year after moving to a new high school, I will never forget feeling so defeated. I didn’t only want to continue to be on the team to play volleyball, but I wanted to continue to focus on making friends. That evening I remember sinking lower than I had ever been in the past. I will never forget the feeling. I didn’t know how to pick myself back up. I felt so alone. The next day when I decided to show up to join the cross country team, to this day I think it shaped the rest of my life. I still remember feeling shaky and nervous approaching the team. And I will never forget that feeling of belonging when the coach accepted me and told me “of course I could join the team”.

From then on, running helped me discover who I was deep down. I didn’t make it to states. I never broke any school records. I was mediocre as a high school running athlete, but I cared about running so much. I should have known back then how important running was going to be in my life. I remember butterflies in my stomach the whole day before tough track workouts. I remember crossing the finish line during cross country meets and feeling so happy. I remember breaking down in tears after pushing so hard during the 400m race at the Penn Relays and not being happy with my time. I remember I cared so much. 

Here I was years later, and I still cared. so much. This time it was my 7th Chicago Marathon with the goal of breaking 3 hours and 30 minutes to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 

I could barely sleep the night before the race. I tossed and turned thinking about the outcome of the race. Would I make my family proud? They wanted to see me happy and to see my fulfill my dreams. Would I be able to celebrate this achievement with my fiance? A man who has stood right there by my side through multiple marathon training cycles and truly knew how bad I wanted this. Would I let my friends down? My cheerleaders that dealt with me through my “marathon training crazies” and were always there to share words of encouragement? Would I let myself down?

I told myself that no matter what happened I would be proud. I had worked too incredibly hard not to be proud.

That morning, I woke up and went through all my pre-race motions. I made my oatmeal. I did my stretches and warm up drills. And then it was time to get to the race…

I left the hotel as I had normally done in the past, but a bit later than usual. By the time I was in my Uber, the roads were all blocked and it took triple the time to get to the start, risking missing my wave and corral gate closing. 

My anxiety was through the roof and an intense sense of panic came over me. I tried to calm my nerves and chat with the uber driver and then it was a mad dash through security, gear check, and a final pit stop at the porta potties. 

To try and calm my nerves further, I joked with the others in line with my same start corral listed on their bibs. We had 15 minutes to get through the line, and I laughed “What do you think guys? Do you think we’ll make it?” I chatted with a woman next to me running Chicago for the first time and shared why I loved this race so much. And then, just like that, I made it and ran to my corral and was ready to go. I am not sure if it was just the sense of relief in making it or my confidence, but I felt SO HAPPY at the starting line. I teared up just thinking about what was to come. At around 7:43AM, I embarked on my 7th marathon! The first few miles, I went out faster than my 3:26:30 pace band, but I kept asking myself “How do you feel?” “Are you in control?” If I was able to answer yes, I kept pace and if not, I slowed down. Then from there I literally just took it one mile at a time using the manual lap feature on my Garmin since the GPS would have interference from the tall buildings. 

By mile 11, I panicked. For some reason I became fixated on the fact that I had still not yet reached the halfway point. I was well ahead of my pace band and thought that perhaps I had gone out way too fast and I was going to be “bonking” by mile 15. I just kept asking myself “How do you feel? Are you in control?” There were points where I felt some pain and soreness in my feet but I was breathing fine and I felt good.  I thought about how I was running for the Alzheimer’s Association and my grandfather who was always so proud of me no matter what. I pushed through the miles thinking of our many happy memories together and thinking of him tracking me as I made my way through the race.

Once I had reached the halfway point, I felt like I had truly settled in to my pace. I would check off each mile one by one and chase away thoughts that the 26 mile marker was still so far away. Eventually I saw the 3:25 group and became very overwhelmed. The pack was very congested around this pace group, and I felt like I had no business being there. Then I realized I had started behind the 3:30 group so I thought “I really had no business being up there!”. When I passed the 3:25 group, I settled back into my right mindset. 

At times I would close my eyes and visualize myself running along the Rye, NH seacoast and feeling so strong. I remember going sub-8 minute pace on a 20 milers and feeling invincible. That was the mindset I needed to have. 

I pushed through each mile, and at times the thought would cross my mind “Lisa, today may be the day you actually do it”. Then I would tell myself that it was not the time to celebrate or think in that way, but I needed to focus, focus, focus and execute, just execute one mile at a time. It wasn’t until I was under a mile away that I realized I was in sub 3:20 territory and I had to give it my all.

Crossing that finish line was the most UNREAL moment of my whole life. I was so overwhelmed. I don’t know how I actually didn’t end up passing out at the finish line. I was in tears. Here’s the part where I admit I have no idea how to put that feeling into words. I am beyond thrilled that I will carry this memory with me for the rest of my life. The finisher’s area is a very long walk through getting your medal, some water/gatorade and snacks as well as your special edition Chicago Marathon Goose Island beer. As I hobbled through the finish, I felt my phone buzz and saw my fiance was calling. I answered, still in tears. “I DID IT!” I cried. My fiance shared how incredibly proud he was and he had recalled my goal time of 3:26. At one point he just said “LISA! YOU WERENT SUPPOSED TO DO THAT” referencing my PR drop from 3:37:05 to 3:18:51. We both laughed and shared in the joy of that finish and I still felt like I was walking on a cloud. 

The rest of the day was spent talking to friends and family on the phone and sharing the day with my fiance and my dear friend, Matt. But it still didn’t feel real.

I don’t exactly know how to sort out all of my thoughts and feelings about this race, but I have to say after the finish I wanted to hug ever single person I saw and tell them that no matter what crazy goal they are chasing, go after it! I mean really go after it and don’t let anyone, not even yourself tell you the goal is achievable. Last year, two weeks before the Chicago Marathon, they changed the qualifying standards from 3:35 to 3:30 and I was absolutely crushed. I ended up with a 4 minute PR with 3:37:05, still off from 3:35 and not able to reach the under 3:30 goal. However, I somehow was able to shake the thoughts of it being impossible and went for it. Stop with the ridiculous limits that we set for ourselves! Take limits out of the equation. They will serve you no purpose. Go after your dreams and celebrate hard work paying off. Chicago, you will always have my heart. Boston 2021, here I come!

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