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Dreaming Big: My Journey to BQ

I vividly remember the moment that I officially set my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It was Patriots’ Day in 2017. I was on maternity leave after having my first child 8.5 months earlier. She was napping and I was watching the Boston Marathon coverage on TV. I’m not sure what it was about that moment, but it ignited an internal fire and a little voice inside me whispered “you need to do that one day”. It was a quiet goal that I kept entirely to myself, thinking “that’s so far out of your reach, you are nowhere near that”. At the time, I had run 3 marathons, all before having children, the fastest of which was 4:29:34. Who was I to think that I could run a BQ time (which was 3:40 at that time)?

In May 2018, I ran my next marathon, which ended up being my first one under 4 hours (3:58:43). I did this using a general “off the shelf” marathon training plan, with a few adaptations I made myself. I was extremely happy to get in the sub-4 hour marathon club, but that gap to BQ still felt daunting.

In March 2019, I had my second child, and made the decision to hire a running coach to help me get ready for the Chicago Marathon, which I would be running at 7 months postpartum. Through recommendations from a few friends, I found Melissa Paauwe of We Run the World Coaching. Hiring her and becoming part of this team is one of the best decisions I have ever made. My goal for Chicago was originally to just finish and not be in pain. I ended up running strong the whole way, finishing only 40 seconds slower than my personal best. It was my second sub-4 hour marathon and my first time running a marathon continuously with no walk breaks and even pacing. I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, I was onto something that would bring me closer to my secret goal of going to Boston.

By 2020, the Boston qualifying times were made even harder and I now had to run 3:35 to qualify. Even so, after a strong year, where I set new personal bests in the 5k, 10k and half marathon (all virtual races, thanks to Covid), I was finally ready in January 2021 to say the BQ goal out loud to my coach. I remember being so nervous to tell her. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been, since she was so supportive and encouraging. She told me that I would get there - that it may not come on the first attempt, that it wouldn’t be easy, but that if I put in the work, it would happen. My confidence rose. I wrote down the goal, made it official, and then, following her lead with her own goals, I decided to make it public. There was no turning back now.

I set my sights on going after my BQ goal in the Berlin Marathon in September 2021. I had a fantastic training block leading up to the race. It went nearly perfect and I finally started to believe I was actually capable of running that BQ time. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be on that day. It was hot and humid, and my race had already been derailed by the 15km mark. It was a struggle to even finish. I went there ready to run sub 3:35 and instead came home with a 4:07. Of course, I was disappointed. It was a major setback. Maybe I wasn’t as ready or capable as I had thought. The doubts crept in.

With a little bit of time, and some great conversations with my coach and teammates, I got over those negative feelings. Big goals do not come easily. I knew that one bad day did not define me. I still believed I was capable of my goal. I knew I came out of that Berlin training block a stronger runner. I became determined to use the setback to fuel my motivation. I now had something to prove and revenge to exact upon the marathon. I refocused and set my next goal race as the Mississauga Marathon in May 2022.

The training block for Mississauga went well and left me feeling ready. I had signed up for the race with my teammates and friends, Brianne and Janelle. We went through every aspect (and I mean EVERY aspect) of training together - thousands of messages were exchanged, analyzing our plans, paces, how our runs felt, our fueling, gear, and so on. I cannot even begin to describe how grateful I am to have had these two to lift me up, challenge me, push me, and inspire me daily. It was a game changer. I wouldn’t be here without them.

After 4 months of hard work, I found myself on that marathon start line again, about to take on my 7th marathon. I was there with an A goal of sub-3:30 to give myself a 5 minute buffer under my BQ time of 3:35, which was my B goal. Standing there waiting for the race to start, Janelle and I hugged and wished each other luck. I had a feeling of calm before the gun went off. In my head, I said to myself, “It’s your turn, go do it”. My plan was to go out at goal pace, or slightly faster on the downhills in the first half of the race. I unexpectedly made a friend named Carl around the 4km mark, when he told himself out loud to “slow down” on a downhill, and we then laughed about it when I commented that I was thinking the same thing (and he realized he had said that out loud and not in his head as planned). We chatted and discovered we had the same sub-3:30 goal and decided to work together, which we did until sometime in the last 5kms of the race.

Kilometres ticked by quickly and comfortably at goal pace for a while after that. I got energy from seeing my husband, Matt, cheering at the 12km and 20km marks. There were also some nice boosts around the 24-26km mark of an out-and-back section of the course, when I got to see my teammates who were out there giving it their all. But then, it suddenly got dark. After the turnaround at the 25.5km mark, I knew that, from then until the finish, I would be heading pretty consistently into a headwind of 32kph (or more) and rain that was steadily increasing. The effort suddenly began to feel harder and my legs got tired. I retreated inward and started thinking negatively about how it was too early for the effort to feel that hard and doubting if I could hold pace for another 17kms. My new friend, Carl, must have sensed my struggle and encouraged me to pick up the pace just a little to stay on track, reminding me I was doing great and that “we’ve got this”. It worked. He pulled me along and by the time I took a gel and some water at the 29km mark, I was right back to feeling good and strong and positive.

More kilometres passed by with me on pace and in control, even though the “few small rollers” I expected on course turned out to be much more significant, and the weather was still worsening. I passed Matt again at 32kms, which I knew would be the last time I would see him before the finish. I told myself I only had 10kms to go. I was still on pace. I could do this.

I was not ready for what came next. As the course moved to the lakefront path, the weather was like nothing I have ever experienced. The wind picked up so much that the waves on Lake Ontario were crashing into the shore and spray was blowing onto me, soaking me along with the rain. I got so cold that I lost feeling in a lot of my body. Around the 36km mark, I began to fall off pace. It was a struggle to put one foot in front of the other and I could feel my A goal slipping away. All the negative thoughts came crashing back - I can’t do this, I’m going to miss my BQ goal again, I just want to quit. I was on the verge of tears. I have no idea how, but I managed to dig deeper than I ever have before and shout, out loud, “Not today! I’m doing this!” In that moment, I promised myself that I would just keep pushing to turn my legs over as fast as they would go, completely ignoring the pace on my watch.

The rest is honestly a blur. I remember, at some point, telling Carl to go without me and I would chase him as best I could, not wanting to hold him back. I remember getting past the 40km sign and thinking “I can make it 2kms”. I remember periodically shouting things like, “Let’s go!” and “Come on!!” to myself in the last km to squeeze out every last ounce of effort I had left. I knew that when it comes to a Boston qualifying time, every second can mean the difference between making or missing the cut off. Finally, I made it to the final few hundred metres and the finish line was in sight. I heard Brianne scream my name on the sidelines, then saw Matt cheering, and that gave me the last little burst of energy I needed to get across the finish line, with tears streaming down my face. I crossed in 3:32:26, a little over 2.5 minutes under my B goal of a BQ time.

I did it. I actually did it. It still feels surreal. I’m so thankful that I had the courage to say this goal out loud, and that I have amazing people in my corner who believe in me and encouraged me to go after it. Go ahead and set the scary goal. Write it down. Tell people. Put in the work. Don’t limit what is possible by failing to try. If you dream big, you just may surprise yourself.

By Coach Laura Henderson

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