Leigh Anne Sharek is putting it all on the line for a 2:45
Editor’s Note: Leigh Anne Sharek lives and races in New York City, as a member of the Brooklyn Track Club and the Lostboys. If there’s any kind of race going down on the east coast, there’s a good chance Leigh Anne is toeing the line. Keep up to date with her here as a regular TEMPO columnist, and on her Instagram here.
The problem with putting your goal out there is that everyone will know if you succeed or fail. Telling people what it is and mentioning it on social media makes you vulnerable, and the pressure to succeed feels tenfold. Going into CIM, many people knew that I wanted to qualify for the Olympic Trials. I signed up for CIM because I knew it was a fast course with a lot of OTQs coming from there.
What I didn’t consider very much was the emotional toll that watching all of the other marathons take place would have. I had a great group of people to train with in NYC - all of whom were running their own marathons. But after Berlin I lost a couple people to train with, then more after Chicago. After NYC I was the only one left who still had to run. It was nerve wracking. There was an inevitable build up of anticipation for me because I was the last one to go.
I flew into Sacramento from New York on Friday night. I felt calm and relaxed and slept in on Saturday. Everything felt easy and fun in the morning - shakeout run was good, we watched the 5K, walked around for lunch. It almost felt like a weekend trip for someone else’s race. It was easy to take my mind off of what was waiting for me until I walked into the technical meeting for the Marathon Championship, and everything changed.
There were way more people there than I expected - probably close to 200. There were the obvious runners, but also coaches, agents, and significant others. Most were talking with others present, and no one looked nervous or restless. I took a seat in the back. Scanning the room, it was a who’s who of brands. Most if not all of the big names were represented by athletes decked out in Nike, Hoka, Brooks, and others. I was wearing the same thing as most - tights, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, but I still felt slightly out of place. I was uncomfortable and my hands were sweaty as they held a water bottle on my lap.
"I had a lot of nerves that I did not know what to do with. I wanted to cry, and scream, and sleep - anything that would relieve the built up pressure."
Leigh Anne Sharek
We got an overview of the next 24 hours; where to drop our bottles for course placement and where they would be on the tables during the race. We went over where to get the elite bus to the start, where we could warm up, drug testing rules, and the post race celebration area. I picked up my bib - which had my name on it. Sharek. Oh my god was that intimidating, yet awesome.
The bib, the technical meeting, the water bottles- these were tastes of being in the elite field. I had qualified to be there and I wanted to be there, yet I still felt overwhelmed and intimidated. But more importantly I also felt proud.
The rest of the day fluctuated between gripping panic and calm determination. I had a lot of nerves that I did not know what to do with. I wanted to cry, and scream, and sleep - anything that would relieve the built up pressure. I was bubbling over with nervous energy waiting for a purpose. Then, on Saturday night I became a walking zombie. I was totally in my head- ruminating. When I tried to verbalize what I was feeling it came out as “I really just want to do it. I need to do it.”
And just when I didn’t think I could get any more emotional, when there couldn’t possibly be any more pressure put on me - I was wrong. My good friend Chris Chavez, who had come out to Sacramento to support me and watch the race, had made a video of about 50 people wishing me good luck. He had compiled 30 second clips from my friends back in NYC, Boston, Oregon, Germany, and even included messages from Olympians Hassan Mead and Colleen Quigley, Boston and NYC Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi, and world record holder Eliud Kipchoge.
I was blown away- from the second the video began I was in tears.
I couldn’t help my reaction to each person I saw, I was smiling and laughing and crying. It was one of the nicest things I had ever received. NOW I felt the pressure, but it made me want my time even more.
"I didn’t want all the people that wished me good luck to be let down or disappointed if I didn’t make it.
I wanted to succeed for me but also for them."
Leigh Anne Sharek
Despite the emotional overload, I was still able to sleep that night and dreamed that I missed the qualifying time. I hadn’t been looking at my watch or splits and I missed it by 3 or 4 minutes unknowingly.
Great start to the day.
The next morning I went through the pre race ritual of coffee, water, electrolytes, english muffin with peanut butter, and a banana. I tried to only focus on the present moment, on getting ready, and not think about the race as a whole. Occasionally my mind would slip and I would think about how long the race was or how I only ran over 20 miles twice this cycle, and I would feel my chest tighten and anxiety come in with an added hint of nausea.
I cried again.
I tried to take some deep breaths. I stretched. I put my bib on, my Brooklyn Track Club singlet on, my 4%s on. It was time to go. I went to meet the elite bus to the start. It was a quiet ride out there, with minimal conversation. Everyone seemed focused and intent on conserving energy. I stared out the window into the darkness for what felt like hours, until I started to see mile markers, volunteers, and fluid stations. I thought about how I was just going to start conservatively, that this race was about correctly executing that one thing. I reminded myself that I knew I could run at least a half marathon at the pace I wanted.
"I tried to take some deep breaths. I stretched. I put my bib on, my Brooklyn Track Club singlet on, my 4%s on. It was time to go."
Leigh Anne Sharek
We all made our way to the pre race tent where we could sit and change, warm up, use the bathroom, eat some more. It was crowded, with almost all of the chairs taken. It felt like an emergency room waiting area, with people coming and going, pacing or sitting, all waiting to be called. I was just starting to feel anxious that I was going to have to stay here for another hour by myself when I saw a few women from NYC that I had met before. We warmed up together; talking about NY and mutual friends.
Finally it was time to line up.
Surprisingly the closer we got to actually running, the better I felt. Lining up, hearing the national anthem, jostling with other runners, this was all familiar. I’d done this hundreds of times. One more deep breath, and the gun went off.
Going into this race my coach stressed getting off to a conservative start, and by keeping the first three miles above my goal pace, the rest would come. The gun sounded and we took off down hill. I consciously held back, letting others go. I stuck with the NYC women since we all had the same goal. A pack quickly formed, about halfway through the first mile we had around 15 women together.
First mile: 6:11. A little fast.
Mile 2: 6:15. Perfect.
Two of my Brooklyn Track Club teammates passed me and we each shared a few words of encouragement. Our pack made it through 5K and continued along, grabbing our first set of water bottles. Immediately after, women started asking if anyone needed anything - someone had Nuun, did anyone need? Water anyone? I offered my Maurten up before tossing it.
This support, this camaraderie, this selflessness was what was going to make us all successful. We were all out there trying to hit a time and every woman in the pack wanted all of us to make it. And we were going to help each other in any way we could to get all of us there.
We stayed together through 10K. I grabbed my next bottle and did a self check in. Legs felt good, breathing was even, mentally calm. I started to move away from the pack around mile 8, and a few women came with me. The effort still felt easy and my splits were right around 6:12-6:15, right where I wanted to be.
"Going into this race my coach stressed getting off to a conservative start, and by keeping the first three miles above my goal pace, the rest would come."
Leigh Anne Sharek
I went through the half a little over 1:21. I was right on track. I was focused. Mentally I kept telling myself to just get to mile 20 feeling like this. My friends were at mile 15.5 cheering. That was a recharge moment for me. I took their energy and used it to power through the next miles.
Around mile 18 I started thinking - ‘This feels fine. I’m going to be able to make a big move soon. Maybe I can close in sub 6 pace.’
Thankfully my friend Tim Rossi, who had recently run NYC and was out here to race for fun, was there to hold me back. I had been running close to another woman, later introduced as Tara Richardson, who asked if we were going to be holding 6:10s for the rest of the race. I said yes, and took this was a mental reminder to stick to the race plan. We ran together for most of the second half.
At mile 20 I realized my legs were starting to feel really fatigued. We had been going over rolling hills for 2 hours, and my quads were feeling each and every stride. Tim was still with me, and the next few miles consisted of him saying ‘Live in this mile.’
Me, Tara, and Tim pushed through the remaining miles. I was trying to do math in my head. Am I well under 2:45? How much leeway do I have? If I slow down can I still make it? My legs were completely done by mile 24. I was repeatedly surprised when my watch would click off the mile and it was right at 6:10. I still do not understand how my legs kept going; how they kept finding energy for another stride, even as my quads burned, my hamstrings tightened, and my lower back ached.
A little past mile 25 one of the women I started with from NYC, Veronica Jackson, flew by me. She yelled at me ‘Let’s go! Come with me!’ I watched her kick away from me. I knew I had something left to give, but I also knew it wouldn’t come until I could see the finish line.
It wasn’t until mile 25 that I allowed myself to believe that I was going to do it - that I was under 2:45 and I was going to finish. If I had told myself earlier I was good, I might have slowed down. I might have given up when it got hard.
I had seen on the course map that we make a U turn to get to the finish. I was running down the street wondering where in the world this turn was. I hit mile 26- 6 freaking 10 on the dot. Finally we turned and after two more turns I could see the finish line. I kicked then, crossed the line, and it was over.
My initial feeling was immense relief. I was done- I had finished and not only that but I had run under 2:45 by 3 min. Within seconds I saw three of my friends. Chris was there and the first person I hugged. I could tell he was just as happy as I was. Tim had also just finished and I thanked him for sticking with me. Jason and Kyle were there too, ready to congratulate me. I don’t think I could even speak, I was just overcome with emotion. Chris had brought an American flag and Jason had a bottle of champagne. With the American flag draped around me and holding the champagne it probably looked like I had just won the actual Olympics, but that’s how it felt to me!
I just kept thinking ‘Thank god. I did it.’ In my delirious state I forgot to get a finishers medal and had to go back for it. Standing outside the Elite Finishers area, waiting for my other friends to meet me, seeing others I had met or run with on the course- was surreal. I felt so proud, and it was so fresh and raw- pure happiness. I wish I could have lived in that moment for a long time. I am really happy with how I ran CIM. I started conservatively and ran even splits for the last 20 miles. I PR’d by 10 min. I trusted my training and my strategy. I accomplished what I sought out to do.
So what’s next? I want to run the Olympic A Standard in Berlin next year. It is going to be a 9 month build which will include attempts at running a range of new personal bests including sub 4:45 for the mile, sub 16:30 for the 5k, sub 34 for the 10k, and most importantly, dropping under 114 in the half.
I’ve cut 20 min in 2 years from my marathon time, and I am confident I can cut more. I not only have the will and desire to keep improving inside of me, but a coach, training partners, and a community behind me.
On to the next.