Finding the Light at the End of the Tunnel – a Post Marathon Reflection

All I remember, is burying my face into a dry wash cloth and sobbing.

I had just crossed the finish line of the Tunnel Light Marathon and I was exhausted – mentally and physically.

I’d finished in 4:40:03.

And I felt like a failure.

I knew I could’ve performed better but I let my mind win in the last 10K. I’d allowed myself to walk, which triggered a calf cramp. The isolation and loneliness I’d felt on the course had dragged out my depressive tendencies.

I’d let mental weakness win.

“You’re just not cut out for this,” I told myself. “You’re not a natural athlete. You overpronate too much. Your flat feet are too weak – no matter what you do.”

Today, it’s almost two weeks since the race. The soreness has subsided and so has my sadness.

When I started this journey a year ago, my goal was to finish uninjured and to overcome my fear of running another marathon.

My first and only marathon in 2013 had left me injured and sidelined for months and I was terrified of going through that again.

So, at Tunnel, I had in fact far surpassed my goal! The opposite of failure.

Why was I being so cruel to myself? Where does this harsh and eager-to-punish voice stem from?

I ran 26.2 miles on a flooded forest trail through relentless rain, mud, and rocks. I ran two of those miles through a pitch-black tunnel. And I finished 35 minutes faster than I had 6 years ago – on a perfect sunny day in Pittsburgh.

And I learned a lot about myself.

I learned that I really rely on people. On their energy, eye contact and smiles.

I may be an introvert – but I need assurance. I need to know I’m not alone.

That I can dig deep and bounce back. At mile 20, I’d dropped from a 10ish min pace to a 14 min pace – but each mile after, I crept back up, finishing my last mile in 10:17.

And I learned that I really don’t like running on uneven ground.

At the finish line, as I sobbed into the towel, my husband Tommy embraced me, and I wept into his shoulder.

“That was so hard,” I kept saying. “I’m never doing that again.”

A few days ago, sitting on the couch, I found myself googling 2020 marathon dates.

“Hey … I’m going to enter the lottery for the New York City Marathon,” I said to Tommy. “I know I said I’m never doing that again… but I didn’t mean it.”

He looked at me and laughed, “Oh, I already knew that.”

Say No to Whiny Bitch and YES to Gritty Bitch

I was sobbing salt when I crossed the Pittsburgh Marathon finish line in May of 2013. Five hours and fifteen minutes earlier – I had foolishly toed the start line with an inflamed Achilles. Now my whole leg was on fire – swollen with fury. As a woman handed me my medal – I dry-heaved a thank you. I still cringe when I remember the 1-mile hobble of hell back to my hotel room, cradling my heavy, oversized “Pittsburgh Runner of Steel” marathon medal against my chest.

It was the best of times … it was the worst of times. Pittsburgh Marathon finisher photo.

A few days later, as I sat in physical therapy, terrified that the Achilles tendonitis in my left ankle would end my new-found passion – I solemnly swore I would never take a risk like this again. Some people are born to run marathons, I lectured myself. And some people just aren’t.

After months of PT, I decided to focus on breaking the 2-hour half marathon. I chipped away my time – hitting 2:07 and then 2:05.  In 2015, double jaw surgery put my running dream on hold, as I was forced to take another 4 months off from running.

In 2017, I hit 2:04 at the Dallas Marathon.

In my last blog, I shared the story of how I FINALLY achieved that goal at the Richmond Half Marathon, largely due to the serendipitous help of my running coach, Becki Spellman. And just like that – I decided it was time to break my vow.

No one is born to run a marathon. Some people are born with a head start.

Yesterday, in the best way possible, I broke my vow of stopping at 13.1 miles – at BAnna camp, surrounded by some of the most badass women on the planet.

Set in north Austin’s glowing, green hill country – BAnna Camp (Becki Spellman + Anna Weber = BAnna) is a women’s running camp based on the Oiselle principles of empowering and supporting women. To get an idea of the overarching theme of the camp – Becki and Anna held an hour-long session titled: “The Art of Being a Gritty Bitch.”

“Gritty Bitch” – A mentally tough, confident, goal-digger, who knows when to say no and also knows when to say YES – I am going to keep going.

The next morning – my good friends Devangi, Julie and Kolbe and I set out on the trail for our long runs. I had 14 on my schedule. Time to break my vow – time to get gritty.

I had the longest run assignment of the group – so I began to bargain with myself, that turning around with them at 12ish miles, would be good enough. This was not what a gritty bitch would do. And as mental coach Dean Hebert had told us the day before – this kind of negative reasoning was metaphorically adding “boulders to my backpack.”

So I changed the script. It’s a beautiful trail – perfect weather. I will break my 13.1 vow. Julie jumped on board with completing 14 miles and soon Devangi was all-in.

We were some Gritty bitches.

At mile 12 – my feet started to ache. Devangi’s ankle started to complain. We were hungry.

“I bet brunch will be long over by the time we get back,” we moaned. Our “backpacks” were overflowing with mental boulders.

As we turned a corner on the trail, our pace began to dwindle – Julie was becoming a shrinking figure ahead. Then the hat appeared – zooming by on the head of an approaching male runner.

“Devangi, did you see that?”

“Dammit. Yes, I saw it.”

A big white trucker hat with four letters in bold black font. A billboard sent from the running Gods.


“I guess we can’t be whiny bitches anymore,” says Devangi.

“Nope,” I say, “It’s time to say NO to whiny bitches and YES to gritty bitches.”

“Gritty bitches surround themselves with gritty people .”

I love the physical act of running and the PRIDE and confidence that comes from the PR journey. Most of all, I love the connections running gives me.

Yesterday, I tore down my silly vow and took the first mile toward 26.2 at the Tunnel Light Marathon in September.

I left BAnna Camp with valuable mental tools, some new street-fighting skills (a story worthy of its own blog – stay tuned), and a self-imposed barrier destroyed. But best of all, I got to soak in the glow of gritty bitches and deepen friendships while planting new ones.

My backpack is empty and I am ready to say YES.

My coach, Becki Spellman, the “B” in BAnna Camp and Queen “Gritty Bitch.”

Richmond Miracles and Calzones: The time I broke the 2-hour half marathon

I was sitting in the lobby of a Hilton Homewood, staring at my calzone, when my running miracle happened.

It was the eve of the Richmond, Virginia half marathon – my break 2-hours goal race. A goal that I had shared with too many people … and on social media.

Here I was, 1300 miles from home, surrounded by the excited chatter of my best running friends, glaring at my pre-race dinner choice and questioning my life decisions.

I had gone to the dark side.

My goal suddenly felt impossible. How am I going to run a half marathon with a 9min average pace? I’d never even run a 10k that fast! Oh, I’m not close to ready. This is terrible.

Six weeks earlier, I had signed up to train with a running coach. I’d followed almost every workout to the exact detail, gleefully logging my miles and paces. I even ordered gold stars from Amazon Prime to reward myself in my running journal. And when I really nailed a workout – I would text it to my coach the moment I got back in my car. The buzz of her affirmation of “AWESOME JOB, ”would be all the motivation I needed to set my 4:45 a.m. alarm the next morning to run. But just a few weeks before this night, I’d gotten an ear and sinus infection and I had missed a week of workouts.

“Yup,” I thought as I swallowed a blob of oily white cheese. “The stupid ear infection was my undoing. If only I hadn’t missed that week – I would be in great shape.”

Earlier that morning, my friends and I had gone on an easy run alongside the James River to peek at the race’s finish line. We took pics in front of a massive gorgeous mural of a regal owl who must certainly be the queen of all owls. We ran across a footbridge that told the story of the fall of Richmond during the Civil War through the use of quotations of both Northern and Southern witnesses. The air was cold and the sky overcast and when we finished our run, it began to rain.

Queen Owl

It rained all day.

It was still raining as we ate our dinner. I had ordered tomato soup to dip my calzone in – which was a weird thing to do since it came with marinara sauce. I’d probably eaten fewer than 5 calzones in my lifetime and at least a thousand pieces of pizza.  But no, I chose to play pre-race dinner roulette with my stomach.

Then through the foggy glass of the lobby’s gas fireplace, I got a glimpse of her. I’d never met her – but I recognized her immediately. I knew she’d be in town for the race – but I didn’t expect to see her until the race after party. Almost choking, I stand and point. My mouth full of my questionable life choice.

My friend Ashley shouts, “HI BECKI!”

It’s my coach, Becki Spellman.

My running miracle.

“I’m Valerie,” I gurgle as she gives me a hug.

“I know who you are!” she laughs. She stands at our table asking everyone how they’re feeling… if they’re excited. She just happens to be staying in our same hotel.

My eyes suddenly feel really large. All I can do is stare. You would’ve thought Michelle Obama had entered the room.

She gives out a few bits of advice … reminds us all to have fun.

I feel tears welling up in my eyes.

And then like that, she’s gone.

And I cry.

My mental sunshine is back. I’m excited for the race.

Becki and me after the race.

The next morning, the rain had vanished. The air was a clean, clear 40 degrees. I wanted to wear tights, long sleeves, and a vest but my roommates talked me down to a compromise of arm warmers, my Oiselle singlet, and tights. They are always right.

I lined up behind the 2-hour pace group with my friends Julie and Heather – two runners and dear friends who I’d been training with during the past year. “Just hold on for as long as you can,” I told myself. “Just go mile by mile.”

And so I did. Miles 1-4 flew by as we ran past antebellum mansions and modern condos. When we hit the 10k crossing, we were in the middle of a park speckled with fall leaves. I check in with myself. Breathing is good. Legs feel good. OK – let’s keep going. I drank water at every water stop but then sprinted to make up time. My pace group was slowly creeping away from me, but my watch showed me on target. “You’re OK, just don’t lose sight of them,” I coached myself.

When I hit mile 8, I slurped down a Honey Stinger Gel and a salt tab. I still hadn’t lost sight of the pace group … hell, this could actually happen.

At mile 10, I felt in shock. I’m still hitting my paces… this could happen.

This could happen … this WILL happen …

At mile 11, I started to feel tired. Real tired. My friend Julie, slowed down to run beside me. “You’re going to do it! I won’t let you slow down!” I muster an appreciative grunt.

It’s somewhere around this point that I began to have an almost out-of-body experience. It’s like my body decided that no matter what my brain might say –I wasn’t going to slow down. I was watching myself run.

At mile 12, the course shifted to a screaming downhill … I was on track for a 1:59 finish. It’s going to happen. You’re going to do it. Just don’t fall down.

And that’s when I RAN. I caught up to the 2-hour pace group, and then I passed them.

I ran my fastest mile of the race and finished in 1:58:35. And when I stopped my watch, I cried again.

You’ve got to put in the physical training to hit hard goals. But you’ve also got to conquer your mental barriers. I won’t always have “running miracles” to drag me out of a pre-race depression. I love the Oiselle mantra of “Head up – Wings out” and I’ve been wearing it on hats and shirts and saying it for years.

But I never lived it until this race.

Race Review: J&J Race and Trail Running Reunion from Tejas Trails at Camp Eagle

It was dark the first time I drove down the 8 miles of rocks and gravel that connects civilization to Camp Eagle.

Almost a year later, I’m back. This time with my husband and plenty of south Texas sunshine to light our way.

It’s not a bird camp. We’re here for the J&J Race and Trail Running Reunion, an excellent excuse to meet up with birds from across the Lone Star State (and Kansas too) to run, cheer and catch up.

I’m here to cheer. I trip on “ghost holes” while walking across carpet. Trail running is not in my biology. But I love to be a fan and I love watching these women do incredible things.

When we finally pulled off the gravel and up to our cabin, I haven’t walked more than a few feet until I hear my name, “VALERIEEEE!” It’s Megan, an honorary Lone Star Bird from Kansas City and she is a bundle of excited energy and chatter. She jokes about how she’s “crazy” and chides herself for signing up for this race.

She’s nervous. But she’s glowing. Like a kid about to go off to college for the first time.

And for good reason. Megan is just hours away from beginning her first 100k (62 miles) trail race.

Soon the sun sets and that deep rural darkness blankets Camp Eagle. It’s a moonless night. But there are plenty of stars.

It’s 8 p.m. and the 100k runners are lining up near a green and yellow inflated arch. Their bodies are silhouettes behind the bouncing balls of light that will be their only source of vision until sunrise.

Megan is one of those 23 orbs. She’s hopping on the balls of her feet. She has a manic smile.

“I’m really excited – I’m ready to get going,” she says. Her voice lowers. “I’ve got a long, long run ahead of me. I’ll try to finish before dinner tomorrow.”

Megan isn’t the only bird running a race, but she is the only bird attempting the 100k.

The next morning, at 6 a.m., the 50k racers are gathering at the arch. Megan has been running for 10 hours.

Lone Star Bird Aracely is getting ready for her first 50k. She’s got the same manic grin as Megan and she’s doing side lunges while her family gives her a pep talk.

“I’m scared,” Aracely says. “I’m scared of the dark.”

“Don’t worry – the sun will be up soon,” someone says.

“True,” she says.

Another voice chimes in, “Don’t worry! You’ll be missing the dark when that hot sun comes up!”

Their laughter is interrupted. The race is about to start.

Over the next few hours. Many more Lone Star Birds line up for the 25k and 10k races.

And they fly.

Katlyn Phillips sails into a first-place female victory in the 10k.

Aracely is 4th female overall, and first in her age group.

But every runner knows not every race is going to go as planned.

After 16 hours and 4 minutes, Megan is pulled off the 100k course. Dehydration and stomach upset resulted in missing the cutoff for the final loop by 8 minutes. But she’s run an astounding 40 miles – on the toughest trail course in Texas, in the dark.

That evening – Austin leader Melissa and DFW leader Ashley present Megan and Aracely with symbolic “Fellow Flowers.”

Megan’s is blue. With proud emotion, Melissa reads the meaning behind Megan’s flower.

“I believe in me and my potential. And I’m going to succeed because I’m brave enough to think I can.”

Megan limps over to take her flower, wiping away tears. Despite her sore legs and her still-not-settled stomach – she smiles. Her tears evaporate into an expression of defiance.

“I’ll be back next year,” she says. “I’m coming back and I’m finishing this race!”

I didn’t come in last

It was my first race. And I didn’t come in last – I came in 60th place – out of 90… and as I inspect the result list I see that I finshed right after a 70-year-old man. But that’s OK – good for him! I’m just glad I wasn’t last.

The Summer Solstice 5K at White Rock Lake sounded like a good first race – a small group, familiar territory. I registered the day before the race because my friend Sylvia mentioned it on Facebook, so I thought I’d tag along and maybe learn a thing or two. Sylvia is a two-time Ironman finisher – need I say more? 

The morning of the race, I woke up early to gingerly safety pin my racing number to my bright blue racing shirt that I’d received at registration.

Now most people know that wearing the band shirt to that band’s concert is way dorky. Is it that way with these small races – or races in general? I don’t know – but I do know I felt like an L 7 weenie decked out in my loose fitting royal blue jersey once I quickly noticed that pretty much everyone had on their cool high tech racing gear. 

Oh well – shake it off, I told myself. Scanning the crowd I found Sylvia and her husband Hugh. Together we perused the free energy samples and I snatched up a tasty looking red mix to add to my water. A few good shakes and the red substance dribbled down my hand and wrist. I looked like I’d just shoved my hand in the garbage disposal. Not a great look for running! 

The race was fun – I “ran” three miles without stopping. Something I’ve never come close to achieving before. And my running buddy Sylvia finished first in her age group! She’s a super star! 

Lessons Learned:

1. Don’t wear dorky racing jersey

2. Stay away from “True Blood” energy drinks

3. You’re never too old to run

4. In six weeks I’ve accomplished so much – I know I’ll conquer the half marathon!